FTC commissioner says the emotional toll of identity theft can't be overlooked

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WASHINGTON — Personal data was stolen from 100 million Americans this year in cyber-attacks and thefts from retailers, banks and hospitals. Many of them will become victims of identity theft. While the financial hit to people and companies is real, the emotional impact can be "life-altering," says Terrell McSweeny, a member of the Federal Trade Commission, at a conference Wednesday.

It's essential "to remember that there is a human face on each of these ID crimes," she said, speaking at Google Inc.'s offices in Washington, D.C. The conference was organized by the Identity Theft Resource Center, an organization that collects data and provides advice to consumers and businesses on dealing with fraud.

Depending on the information that's stolen, problems go well beyond canceling a stolen card or changing a PIN. Criminals file false tax returns or misuse identities to get cellphone service, open utility accounts and obtain prescription drugs. Some victims have had their names wrongly invoked in arrest reports and court records of other people's crimes. Victims say the violation brings with it anger, anxiety, sadness, shame and even suicidal thoughts.

While theft of credit card information remains the most common type of cyber fraud, medical identity theft is growing. It can result in victims being billed for medical services and prescriptions they didn't receive, or finding another person's health information in their medical records. Consequently, they can be denied health benefits or insurance.

There hasn't been an organized effort involving doctors and hospitals to combat medical ID theft in the way the financial services industry has done, said Steve Toporoff, an attorney in the FTC's privacy and identity protection division, who also spoke at the conference.


AP Technology Writer Brandon Bailey in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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