By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - More U.S. consumers complained about imposter scams than identity theft for the first time in 2016, as fraudsters relied more on the phone and less on email to find victims, the Federal Trade Commission said on Friday.
Impostor scams accounted for 406,578 of the 3,050,374 consumer complaints received in 2016 by the FTC's Consumer Sentinel Network, just above the 399,225 received for identity theft, the agency said.
Debt collection generated 859,090, or 28 percent, of all complaints, more than any other category. Complaints overall fell 3 percent from the record 3,140,803 set a year earlier.
The FTC attributed the rise in impostor scam complaints to more fraudsters pretending to be trustworthy government officials, like from the Internal Revenue Service demanding payment of taxes.
Impostor scams topped the list of complaints from military personnel, accounting for 32 percent of the 115,984 received.
The 19 percent drop in identity theft complaints, meanwhile, came as authorities try to educate consumers about protecting personal data and reporting suspicious activity quickly.
Of the consumers reporting fraud, 77 percent said scammers contacted them first by phone, up from 54 percent just two years earlier.
Only 8 percent reported being first contacted by email, and just 6 percent through the Internet.
A total of 662,209 consumers reported losing $744.5 million through fraud in 2016, for an average $1,124 each, the FTC said.
Fifty-eight percent of reported fraudulent payments were made by wire transfers, and most of the rest by credit cards, debits from bank accounts, or prepaid cards, the FTC said.
The database includes complaints made directly to the FTC, various state and federal law enforcement agencies, and other groups including the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)