11/05/2014 10:51 am ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

Fear and Worry in America? Identity Theft and Cybercrime

By Neal O'Farrell, security and identity theft expert for

What's the biggest worry for Americans? Here's a clue. It's not Ebola, terrorism or spiders. According to two separate studies and polls in just the last two weeks, the two things that most Americans worry about, even fear, are identity theft and hacking.

A Gallup poll released last week found that the biggest worry for consumers was identity theft, causing concern for nearly 70 percent of respondents. That was followed by the fear of having a computer or smartphone hacked (62 percent). And those were the only two crimes in the poll that worried the majority of Americans.

According to Gallup, a quarter of Americans, 27 percent, say they or another household member had a credit card stolen by hackers in the last year, which made it the most frequently experienced crime on a list of nine crimes. Eleven percent say they or a household member have had their computer or smartphone hacked in the last year.

While the majority of victims of other crimes like burglary and muggings say they reported the crime to the police, less than half of identity theft victims and a quarter of hacking victims say they went to the police. If you've ever been a victim of identity theft and tried to report it to the police, you'll understand why many never bother.

In a completely separate study, the Chapman University Survey on American Fears interviewed 1,500 participants from across the nation and from all walks of life. According to their study, the number one fear in America today is walking alone at night. Which is understandable, and probably a fear that has been with most humans since sabre tooth tigers roamed the neighborhood.

But the survey also found that hot on the heels of night-walking fears, identity theft and internet safety were ranked two and three. Pretty scary stuff when you consider all the possible risks, threats and fears most of us face every single day.

When the Chapman study moved away from fears and on to concerns, worries over what lurked in the darkness were banished from the throne. When asked about their top concerns, as opposed to fears, identity theft came in at number one while internet surveillance by businesses was number two.

Both follow on the heels of a report just released by California Attorney General Kamala Harris that one out of every two California residents had their personal information exposed in a data breach last year.

I've spoken before about creeping normality, about how every unanswered data or security breach forces consumers to accept them a little more. What's really creepy is that businesses seem to be embracing that notion as a business strategy, and realize that at some point consumers will stop caring and businesses can go back to business as usual. But it will be a new usual, and I'm not sure it's going to be a good one.

And chew on this. In America we're becoming immune to many types of fraud because we don't really feel the direct pain. Zero liability zeros out the losses. In most other countries there's no such thing as zero liability. Consumers are on the hook for all the losses they incur. What if things were to change and that became our new normal?


Neal O'Farrell is one of the most experienced consumer-security experts on the planet. Over the last 30 years he has advised governments, intelligence agencies, Fortune 500 companies and millions of consumers on identity protection, cybersecurity and privacy. As Executive Director of the Identity Theft Council, Neal has personally counseled thousands of identity-theft victims, taken on cases referred to him by the FBI and Secret Service, and interviewed some of the nation's most notorious identity thieves.