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IT :

A steady rise in online identity theft should be signaling IT managers to shore up customer information before they face any further deterioration in consumer confidence.

Online consumers are growing increasingly wary of identity theft and that fear is hurting e-commerce, according to industry analysts. Protecting customer data -- while it's in transit, while it's stored in databases and while it's being shared with business partners -- is a critical component in the fight against this costly form of fraud.

''IT managers need to take a hard look at their own security,'' says Jay Foley, co-executive director of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center. ''Who has access to their system? What kind of security is around it? Who has access to that information when it's sitting in their database? These are questions that have to be answered.''

A new study from industry analyst firm Gartner Inc. this week highlighted the identity theft problem.

Identity theft incidents grew by 79 percent in the 12 months between June of 2002 and June of 2003, according to the Gartner report. That means 7 million U.S. adults, or 3.4 percent of U.S. consumers, were victims of identity theft during that one-year period. And it's a crime largely going unpunished. Gartner analysts say that thieves have better than a one in 700 chance of being caught by federal authorities.

''Many banks, credit card issuers, cell phone service providers and other enterprises that extend financial credit to consumers don't recognize most identity theft fraud for what it is,'' says Avivah Litan, vice president and research director for Gartner. ''Instead, they mistakenly write it off as credit losses, causing a serious disconnect between the magnitude of identity theft that innocent consumers experience and the industry's proper recognition of the crime. This causes a disincentive to fix the problem with the urgency it requires.''

Identity theft is defined as a thief stealing a person's identity by lifting critical personal information, like credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, bank account information, driver's license information and address. The thief uses that information to make purchases, open up lines of credit and even obtain illegal loans.

But while identity theft incidents are on the rise, some analysts have doubts that it's risen by nearly 80 percent in the last year.

''We have been believing for quite a while that credit reporting agencies and creditors have misreporting identity theft,'' says Foley. ''They've been misclassifying it as general fraud. The real numbers haven't been coming out. Part of it is that we're becoming more aware of it, but I do believe the problem is becoming worse.''

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