In a warning for the rest of the world, new US research shows the scale to which ID theft is afflicting the US.

A comprehensive survey conducted by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) found that identity theft is affecting millions of households in the country each year and costing an estimated $6.4 billion per year.

About 3 per cent of all households in the US, totaling an estimated 3.6 million families, were hit by some sort of ID theft during the first six months of 2004, according to DOJ data set to be released Sunday.

42,000-strong sample group confirms worst fears

The data comes from the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey, which interviews members of 42,000 households across the country every six months to better understand the nature, frequency and consequences of crime. Households that participate in the survey are selected at random and then interviewed by DOJ statisticians twice a year for three years.

The DOJ has been compiling this information for more than 30 years, but this marks the first time it has asked households about identity theft, said survey author Katrina Baum, a statistician with the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

According to the DOJ's numbers, credit card misuse is the most common consequence of identity theft. It accounted for about half of the cases of identity theft that the survey tracked, Baum said.

Of the other identity theft victims, about 25 per cent had banking and other types of accounts used without permission, 15 per cent had their personal information misused, and about 12 per cent faced a combination of several types of ID theft.

Consumer pain

The average loss from these crimes amounted to $1,290, with two-thirds of respondents saying that the theft cost them money. Based on these numbers, the nationwide estimated loss during the six months of the study amounted to $3.2 billion, for an annualised total of $6.4 billion.

The young and the well-to-do appear to be more at risk for identity theft, according to the DOJ numbers. Households headed by people between 18 and 24 years of age and those with incomes of $75,000 or more were the most likely to experience identity theft. Households in urban and suburban areas were also more likely to be affected.

According to Baum, 5 per cent of households earning more than $75,000 per year experienced this kind of crime. "It's usually a phenomenon that's experienced by the young and those in urban households," she said. The survey did not explore why this is the case.