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100 Days of Credit Card Theft

We found more than $2.3 million in small-scale fraud has already been caught this year.

By Brandon Ballenger and Jess Miller

How common is identity theft, and how much does it cost?

It’s a problem even the crime experts at the FBI grapple with. There’s no definitive answer. But for 15 years in a row, it’s been the top complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates 7 percent of American adults are victimized every year.

While the national media has focused on the biggest data breaches, local news outlets cover another big component — credit card fraud — every day. The map below highlights more than 100 cases from the first 100 days of 2015. While it’s impossible to document the full extent of the crime, we found at least one example in every state. Check it out, then see our findings below.


This is really only a starting point to discuss the scope of identity theft in America. Since it’s a very broad category of complex crimes, we thought it would be helpful to narrow it down. We chose to focus on credit card fraud, but could have just as easily researched medical fraud or tax fraud. The nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center, meanwhile, tries to catalog every data breach. So far they’ve counted 247 breaches for the year, including at banks, retailers, hospitals and universities whose names you’d recognize. That’s more than 14 per week, on average.

But we found even credit card fraud comes in a variety of low-tech and high-tech forms and happens almost daily. Some cases were as simple as snatching a purse from an unattended car and using the card before it could be reported stolen, or a man posing as a church volunteer and rifling through unattended coat pockets.

Thieves often commit desperate one-off acts like that, while others are more cunning — like hotel and restaurant employees looking to make some extra cash, and people who install credit card skimmers on ATMs. Then there are hackers who are smart enough to capture your information online, and sell it to other crooks who encode it onto the magnetic strips of existing cards, sometimes burning through dozens of credit card numbers in a week.

Often, it isn’t clear how credit card information is stolen — only that money is missing. So the dates are sometimes estimated, and there is no obvious “crime scene.” Sometimes it’s the other way around, and a theft is reported quickly enough that the damage is limited and the criminals are caught. From these cases, we can see that credit card theft happens everywhere from Taco Bell to the country club, from the hair salon to daycare, and the thieves don’t always stay in one place.

But many details are left out in police and media reports, so even with more than 100 examples it’s hard to paint a picture of the number of victims or the amount of fraud. More than half the cases involve an unknown amount, but even estimating conservatively, we’re sure more than $2.3 million was reported stolen in a stunning variety of venues. The details may be fuzzy, but the conclusion is clear — fraud happens everywhere, every day, to everybody.

Fortunately, many of these cases have common-sense prevention: Don’t leave your wallet or purse attended, even if you’re only going to be gone “just a minute.” Regularly check your financial accounts online for any unusual transactions — reporting fraud fast is the key to limiting your liability. We’ve got plenty of other advice for identity theft prevention and recovery in our Identity Theft Learning Center.

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