Major identity thieves obtain personal information from retailers, financial companies and other businesses about half the time, a new study...

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Major identity thieves obtain personal information from retailers, financial companies and other businesses about half the time, a new study suggests, undercutting a common perception that potential victims should worry most about being scammed by people they know.

The federally funded study being released today paints a complex portrait of identity theft, the top consumer-fraud complaint to federal authorities for six consecutive years.

Of more than 500 offenders arrested by the U.S. Secret Service between 2000 and 2006, just 8 percent were related to or socially acquainted with victims whose sensitive data were used to write checks, take out loans or buy cars.

“The role of strangers — that’s different than what’s been reported until now,” said lead scientist Gary Gordon, of the year-old Center for Identity Management and Information Protection at Utica College in New York, which produced the report.

Previous analyses mainly were based on surveys of victims who knew how someone ended up pretending to be them. They often pointed to acquaintances. Federal Trade Commission officials have faulted such figures, saying most victims of online thefts and compromised businesses are unlikely to learn how their information was pried loose.

The latest research shows that “nontechnological means” such as mail stealing and Dumpster diving were used in about 20 percent of the ID-theft crimes solved by the Secret Service. That’s the same proportion driven by Internet scams such as e-mail hustles and computer hacking.

The most common tool for identity theft was a range of technology devices, a category that includes credit-card encoders, computer printers and telephones. Devices were used 37 percent of the time.

The new study is based on cases closed by the Secret Service.

The median loss in the Utica College database was $31,000, while a Gartner Inc. survey of consumer victims this year found an average loss of about $3,300.

Gordon did caution against generalizing from the statistics because his study looked only at cases that were solved by the Secret Service — a minority of the more than 15 million annual instances estimated by Gartner.

Other prosecutions are handled by local or state police.