For the 12th year in a row, ID theft is the number-one complaint, the
Federal Trade Commission announced last week. It’s followed by the usual
shenanigans, including debt collection schemes, bogus sweepstakes, and
But the real news is the reaction to the list, which is … well, nothing.
Apart from a few polite pick-ups by the mainstream media that noted
the ID theft epidemic, the news was roundly ignored in favor of the
latest primary election drama or iPad product announcement.
The message to consumers couldn’t have been any clearer. Same old
scams, same old advice — watch out for identity thieves, don’t wire
money to strangers, careful when you shop online.
Hang on. Speaking on behalf of the last five remaining consumer
advocates, would you mind spending just another minute with the FTC
It’s more than a brag-list of how many phone calls and letters this
federal agency fielded from ripped-off customers. It can also be a
roadmap for a scam-free 2012.
You have to look beyond the crimes to see what’s really happening.
It’s more disturbing than the million-plus complaints against
unscrupulous businesses, or even for that matter, the many cases the
government refused to investigate.
For example, ID theft is not about your social security number, credit
card information and password being snatched by an invisible
perpetrator. It is the unfortunate confluence of careless consumers
and clever criminals.
Impostor scams, another popular complaint category, isn’t a one-time
ruse that only the naïve fall for. It’s about the career con artists
using tried-and-true strategies for swindling good people out of their
hard-earned cash, again and again.
And the thing is – and I say this as both a victim and a student of
scams – there’s no quick fix.
The process of making sure you don’t leave your data lying around
carelessly starts when you spend the first dollar of your allowance
and develops as you become a gainfully-employed, taxpaying citizen, as
I reveal in my book.
Too bad we failed to learn those basic lessons.
What is being taught, exactly? Thanks to an incessant barrage of ads
and messages that are controlled by a thousand unseen reputation
management operatives, we’re programmed to become unquestioning
consumers, to obediently and uncritically buy, buy, buy.
One of the byproducts of this collective brainwash is that we’ll fall
for anything, including the obvious scams. Our capacity to research,
evaluate and execute a sound purchase has been short-circuited. Our
development as responsible consumers is stunted.
We’re a little bit like toddlers at the mall, instinctively reaching
for everything the adults leave at eye-level. When something goes
wrong, we also react like babies, whining and threatening until we get
our way, instead of applying proven problem-solving techniques that
should be part of everyone’s basic education.
The result: We can’t help but be victims. To repeat: ID theft has led
the FTC list for 12 years in a row – 12 years! You’d think we would
have learned to avoid it by now, don’t you?
What the list tells me, and what it should tell you, is that our
problems go far beyond complaints filed with the feds. Until we
recognize that we’re being influence by powerful forces with a vested
interest in keeping us ignorant, uncritical and yes, gullible, we
won’t be able to start the long journey toward enlightenment.
We are a nation of the scammed. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott is the author of the book “Scammed.”