Cases of big data breaches or credit card fraud are frequently in the headlines. However, there’s another type of financial crime that’s still affecting Americans nationwide: The theft of cold, hard cash.
A recent survey of over 1,000 Americans from DepositAccounts, a LendingTree company, found that nearly a quarter (24%) of people had cash stolen in the past year. Still, despite that relatively high rate of theft, consumers across almost all generations said that they still think that cash is the safest method of payment.
- A whopping 24% of consumers had cash stolen in the last year. Men (29%), members of Gen Z (37%), and parents of children under 18 (32%) reported more instances of stolen cash than other demographics.
- Of those whose cash was stolen, 49% said it was taken from their wallet or purse, while 18% said the theft occurred at home, as well as 18% who had cash swiped from their car. Baby boomers experienced more stolen cash from their home than other generations, while younger consumers had more cash stolen from their wallet.
- Male respondents were twice as likely as females to report cash stolen from their car, while women cited higher instances of theft from their wallets or purses.
- More than a third (34%) never found out who stole their cash. 22% said their cash was stolen by a stranger, 17% a family member, and 15% a friend.
- Still, 40% of all consumers think cash is the safest payment method, followed by debit cards (36%). Only 25% of survey respondents said credit cards are the most secure way to pay.
- Millennials and Gen Z still think cash is safest, even during a shift toward mobile payments. In fact, younger Americans were less likely than baby boomers to say credit cards are safer than cash.
- 47% said cash is less of a hassle to have stolen than credit cards or debit cards, despite no way to get the money back.
Who has cash stolen the most?
Nearly a quarter of respondents said have had cash stolen in the past 12 months, and younger generations have experienced the highest rates of cash theft. Our survey found that 37% of respondents in Gen Z had cash stolen within the last year, 32% of millennials, 26% of Gen Xers and 12% of baby boomers.
Cash theft was prevalent among both sexes, but higher for men: 29% of males had cash stolen in the past 12 months, compared to 19% of females.
And while cash theft occurred among both those with children and those who did not have kids, parents with children under the age of 18 had the highest rates of cash theft: 32% said they had cash stolen in the past year.
Where cash is stolen the most?When it comes to cash theft, the scene of the crime occurred everywhere from home to the office. Overall, the most common place people had their cash stolen from was their wallet or purse (49%). Meanwhile, 18% had cash stolen from their home, 18% had it stolen from their car and 4% from their desk at work.
Interestingly, wallets and purses were the most common places for cash theft across all generations, including 56% of Gen Zers, 50% of millennials, 50% of Gen Xers and 39% of baby boomers.
However, our survey found significant differences in where cash theft occurred for males versus female respondents. While wallets and purses were still the most common place for cash theft among men (44%) and women (56%), men were nearly twice as likely (23%) to have cash stolen from their car than women (11%). Meanwhile, 19% of women and 18% of men reported having cash stolen from their home.
Who is stealing all the cash?
So, who’s the culprit behind all this stolen cash? Our survey found everyone from strangers to colleagues are the alleged perpetrators — but the most common response among survey respondents was that they didn’t know who stole their cash (34%). This was followed by a stranger (22%), another family member (17%), a friend (15%), a colleague (6%) and their child (3%).
Our survey did not find stark generational differences behind who was responsible for stolen cash, although a surprising 16% of Gen Zers reported colleagues stealing their cash — a much higher rate than other generations. Meanwhile, millennials reported the highest rate of theft from family members (24%) among any other generation, while Gen Xers reported a higher rate of theft from friends (23%) than any other generation.
There were also some differences in cash theft perpetrated against men and women. Women most commonly answered that they don’t know who stole their cash (35%), followed by another family member (22%), a friend (13%), a stranger (12%), a colleague (7%) and their child (6%). Men also most commonly said that they do not know who stole cash from them (32%), but then 29% said a stranger was to blame, 17% said a friend, 14% said another family member, 5% said a colleague and less than 1% said their child.
Consumers still think cash is the safest way to pay
Despite survey respondents' rates of cash theft, many still believe that cash is still the safest mode of payment. Our survey found that overall, 40% of respondents think that cash is the safest way to pay, followed by debit cards (36%) and credit cards (25%).
Even younger generations, who are increasingly mobile and more accustomed to technology, share the sentiment that cash is the safest way to pay. Among the Gen Z generation, 42% said cash was the safest form of payment, 42% said debit cards were the safest mode of pay, and only 15% said credit cards were the safest. For millennials, 43% said that cash was the safest method of payment, followed by 36% who said debit cards are the safest and 22% who said credit cards are the safest.
And those numbers aren’t much different from what baby boomers perceived as the safest form of payment: 41% of baby boomers said that they think cash is the safest form of payment, 31% said debit cards and 29% said credit cards.
Experts see credit cards as the safest way to pay
Contrary to respondents’ belief that cash is the safest form of payment, many experts emphasize that credit cards are actually the safest way to pay. Thanks to consumer protection laws like the Fair Credit Billing Act, your liability is limited to $50 for any unauthorized use of a credit card. Additionally, many credit card issuers offer even more robust protection plans, like $0 fraud liability.
That’s not the case for debit cards and cash — when someone steals your cash, you can kiss it goodbye. With debit cards, the amount of fraudulent charges you are liable for is dependent on how soon you report your card as lost or stolen. If you report it two days after you learn about any loss of theft, your maximum loss will be $50. However, if you report it after two days but before 60 days, you could be liable up to $500, while over 60 days could result in serious financial damage — like a completely drained account.
How to protect your cash
That being said, many people often keep at least a little bit of cash on-hand — whether it’s to make small purchases or just to feel more secure by having immediate access to funds if needed. If you do keep cash on-hand, there are simple things you can do to protect it, like:
- If you keep cash at home, store it in a fireproof and waterproof safe.
- Do not keep cash in plain sight.
- The best place to keep excess cash is in a liquid deposit account at a bank, where it’s FDIC-insured up to the legal limit and could even earn interest.
DepositAccounts commissioned Qualtrics to conduct an online survey of 1,002 Americans, with the sample base proportioned to represent the overall population. The survey was fielded Oct. 25-29, 2019.
Generations are defined as: Generation Zers are aged 18-22, millennials are aged 23-38, Generation Xers are aged 39-53 and baby boomers are aged 54-73.