Preventing Identity Theft: The Living and the Dead
A company called Metacharge has rolled out an e-commerce security service in the United Kingdom. For about $2 per name, website operators can verify their customers against the UK Electoral Roll, the British Telecom directory, and a mortality database.
That’s not cheap, and the company is mainly targeting customers in high-risk industries, such as online gaming. But the economics behind this system are interesting to examine. They illustrate externalities associated with fraud and identity theft, and why leaving matters to the companies won’t fix the problem.
The mortality database is interesting. According to Metacharge, “the fastest growing form of identity theft is not phishing; it is taking the identities of dead people and using them to get credit.”
For a website, the economics are straightforward. It costs $2 to verify that a customer is alive. If the probability the customer is actually dead (and therefore fraudulent) times the average losses due to this dead customer is more than $2, this service makes sense. If it is less, then the service doesn’t. For example, if dead customers are one in ten thousand, and they cost $15,000 each, then the service is not worth it. If they cost $25,000 each, or if they occur twice as often, then it is worth it.
Imagine now that there is a similar service that identifies identity fraud among living people. The same economic analysis would also hold. But in this case, there’s an externality: there is an additional cost of fraud borne by the victim and not by the website. So if fraud using the identity of living customers occurs at a rate of one in ten thousand, and each one costs $15,000 to the website and another $10,000 to the victim, the website will conclude that the service is not worthwhile, even though paying for it is cheaper overall. This is why legislation is needed: to raise the cost of fraud to the websites.
There’s another economic trade-off. Websites have two basic opportunities to verify customers using services such as these. The first is when they sign up the customer, and the second is after some kind of non-payment. Most of the damages to the customer occur after the non-payment is referred to a credit bureau, so it would make sense to perform some extra identification checks at that point. It would certainly be cheaper to the website, as far fewer checks would be paid for. But because this second opportunity comes after the website has suffered its losses, it has no real incentive to take advantage of it. Again, economics drives security.