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November 26, 2013

Why Traditional Crime Measurements Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Summary:

Criminals aren’t committing fewer criminal acts, just different ones. We don’t have fewer criminals, only smarter ones.  

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All over the nation, the question is being asked, “Why is the overall crime rate in the US on the decline?”

We have the answer:  “It’s not.”

In 1930, the FBI was given the task of collecting and publishing crime-rate statistics from across the country, and the UCR (Uniform Crime Reporting) Program was born. This program collects data from across the country, and it is published in several reports, including the often quoted Crime in the United States report. The report separates offenses into two categories: violent crime and property crime. 

These two categories appear to provide an adequate sample of the types of crimes that should be captured to measure the overall crime rate, but the four “property crime” categories fall short. There is a simple reason: They have not changed since the 1920s.*

For instance, the category of larceny-theft does not include embezzlement, confidence games, forgery, check fraud, etc. Identity theft, which is growing astronomically, is also not included.

According to the two entities within the federal government that measure and report identity theft rates — the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Consumer Sentinel Report and the Bureau of Justice Statistics — identity theft crime rates continue to increase. Identity theft has been ranked as the #1 complaint reported to the FTC for the past 13 years. Of the 2,061,495 complaints captured from a variety of organizations that share data with the FTC, 369,132 were regarding identity theft.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics uses the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) to capture and report its statistics on identity theft.  The last report available captures information from 2005-2010. According to this latest report, approximately 8.6 million households experienced financial identity theft.

The latest statistics available (2012) are from Javelin Strategy & Research Inc., an independent organization not affiliated with the federal government.  Their study concluded that there have been 12.6 million incidents of identity fraud.

Identity theft is increasing faster than property theft crimes are declining, but the public isn’t paying enough attention.  The reasons for apathy include the misconception that one can’t be a victim without a stellar credit rating (i.e., my identity isn’t worthy stealing) and the conspiracy theorist notion that this is all just a scare tactic promoted by industry to entice consumers into buying services that are unnecessary. Both are misguided.

A change in public perception is required. It has been engrained into us that we must take personal responsibility for safeguarding our possessions and our physical wellbeing, so why not our identity?

Most people realize that they cannot guarantee they will never be burglarized.  So they employ tactics to make it harder to break into their home.  When leaving for vacation, they secure doors and windows and activate alarms.  Often, mail is held at the post office and friends are asked to check in on the place.

People must likewise actively guard their identity components (such as passwords and devices).  Taking regular steps to safeguard your identity must become engrained in all of us.  It’s absolutely true that you can do everything right and still become a victim of identity theft – but why not make the thieves work hard?

Ask anyone if they would think twice about wandering into a dark alley, alone, at night, in a dicey neighborhood, and they would say, Absolutely! But consumers think nothing of going to strange websites and entering credit card (or even more personal information) without checking the legitimacy of the site, especially when you can get a screaming deal on that flat-screen TV or tablet.

It is widely recognized that fraud and financial crimes don’t scare or shock people in the same way that violent crimes do.  Unless they rise to the level of Bernie Madoff or Enron, the crimes rarely make headlines.

Additionally, financial crimes are often cited as much harder to accurately measure because of underreporting and lack of consistent reporting methods.**  Some individuals do not believe that financial crime victims suffer true harm, especially if they are eventually made financially whole, as can happen with some identity-theft victims.  There is a misconception that once an individual has false charges removed from a credit account, or false accounts removed from a credit report, or a false tax return remedied by the IRS, that they are no longer the victim.  The victim label is assigned to the entity that takes the financial hit, such as the credit card issuer/financial institution and the IRS. Regardless, a crime has still been committed. Even if the crimes are difficult to measure and don’t shock, they certainly should be included in our evaluation of crime rates.

The infiltration of technology into our daily lives has not only changed the way we live, it has changed the way crimes are being committed. Much like water, criminal elements will take the path of least resistance.  When law enforcement and society become adept at suppressing scofflaws by making a particular crime more difficult to commit, such as through anti-theft devices on cars, criminals move on to other crimes.

Non-violent crimes rates haven’t decreased; they have just changed. Whereas the criminal of twenty years ago was armed with a knife or a gun, today’s criminal is armed with a keyboard or skimming device. The weapon(s) of choice has changed from tools of violence to tools of technology.  Criminals aren’t committing fewer criminal acts, just different ones. We don’t have fewer criminals, only smarter ones.

* Upon inquiry, the FBI responded with the historical information to explain how the eight offense classifications known as Part I crimes were chosen as indicators of the overall crime rate in the country.  The first seven offenses were originally chosen in 1929.  Arson, the 8th offense was added in 1979. The 7 original offenses chosen to illustrate the overall crime rate and used in the annual publication Crime in the United States were not altered at that time.  In fact, they have remained mostly unchanged since the 1920s.

** The FBI has a Financial Crimes Report that is listed under its “Other Reports and Publications” section. Other offense data for fraud and fraud type offenses is captured in the FBI’s NIBRS (National Incident-Based Reporting System); however, identity theft is not one of the incident types captured.

The Financial Crimes Report(s) differ in format from the violent crime/property crime format in the UCR and are more difficult to decipher.  The data contained in these reports is for cases investigated by the FBI.  It does not include financial crimes cases for local jurisdictions throughout the United States as the UCR does.  The most recent report shows 5 year trends in various categories.  The categories of  Corporate Fraud, Securities and commodities fraud, health care fraud, and mortgage fraud (reported cases) all show increasing numbers. Financial institution fraud, insurance fraud, and money laundering case statistics show a decrease in numbers and mass marketing fraud has stayed relatively flat.

The NIBRS report for 2011 indicates there is data on the following fraud type offenses: Bribery – 293; Counterfeiting/Forgery – 74,131; Embezzlement – 17,000; Extortion – 1217, and Fraud Offenses – 245,301. This a total of over 330,000 known incidents that could be counted in the overall crime rate in the UCR.  Though small in comparison to the other property crime numbers, it is not a statistically irrelevant number.   Identity theft statistics are not captured on this report.  Identity theft statistics are published by another department within the USDOJ (of which the FBI is a part), the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

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