April 14, 2014, 2:22 PM

Reports of personal data theft are on the rise

18% of U.S. online adults say they’ve had such data as Social Security or bank account numbers stolen as a result of their online activities, up from 7% last year, according to the Pew Research Center. And many more consumers are worried now about the data about them available online.

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The highly publicized thefts of consumer data from retail chains like Target Corp. and The Neiman Marcus Group Inc. shows up in a big way in a new report in which many more online consumers say their personal data has been compromised. And—though criminals stole consumer data via retail stores, not e-commerce sites—consumers are more concerned now about the security of online personal data.

The percentage of U.S. adults who report they’ve had personal data, such as their Social Security, credit card or bank account numbers, stolen as a result of their online activities jumped to 18% in January 2014, up from 11% last July and 7% in January 2013, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. Pew did not ask under what specific circumstances respondents’ data were stolen. Respondents reporting they’d had an e-mail or social media account compromised or taken over without their permission, meanwhile, stayed flat at 21% between July 2013 and January 2014.

Pew surveyed by telephone 1,002 U.S. adults, including 820 Internet users, for its latest January report. That means the responses came in after the high-profile data thefts at Target and Neiman Marcus during the 2013 holidays. But Pew conducted the survey before last week’s public disclosure of the Heartbleed software bug, a vulnerability that has existed for many months and could expose data stored by many web sites. 

“The consequences of these flaws and breaches may add insult to injury for those who have already experienced some kind of personal information theft,” writes Mary Madden, a senior researcher at Pew and author of the report. “And research suggests that young adults and younger baby boomers may have been especially hard hit in the second half of 2013.”

In the January survey, 20% of U.S. adults aged 50-64 reported they’d had personal data stolen as a result of their online activities, up from 11% in July 2013. Among young adults aged 18-29, 15% reported the same type of theft in January, up from 7% last July. For other age groups, the increases were not statistically significant.

As more security problems crop up, so do U.S. consumers’ concerns about the amount of their personal data available online. In January, 50% of the Pew survey respondents said this was a worry, up from 33% in January 2009, the report says.

“There have clearly been many high-profile and large-scale data breaches over the past six months, and that may prompt people to review their statements and accounts more closely. And there’s the larger backdrop of the NSA revelations, which has likely heightened public awareness of data security more generally,” Madden says. “These questions reflect one touchpoint in this larger story—that a rising share of the public says they have experienced a personal data breach. Forthcoming studies from us will look at how these kinds of experiences might have an influence on user behavior and attitudes.”

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