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Identity theft -- don't be a victim

"There's no such thing as a rigid guideline or threshold imposed by the Justice Department on U.S. attorneys," one said. "Each office makes a judgment based on the workload the office is handling, the individual circumstances of the case and the strength of the proof.

"Investigative agencies and prosecutors' offices have finite resources. It's going to be a greater benefit in terms of impact if we can attack a ring. Whether identity theft or other types of crimes, we try to have good coordination with our state and local counterparts. It might not merit prosecution at the federal level, but it may be appropriate for state or local prosecutors."

Sgt. Les Worden of the Beaumont, Texas, police department handles fraud cases and received the original Harley-Davidson complaint. At the local level too, it's the strength of the case, economics and work load.

"We don't limit by dollar amount. With me it's solvability. If there's someone who can lead to the prosecution, we're going to see what we can do. But I can't run off to Houston, Nigeria or England.

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"When I get a case, I have to understand what's going on from several perspectives. Can I make a positive connection between the person committing the offense and the person being victimized -- not just the person whose identity was stolen, it's also the person accepting the check or the credit card.

"Throw in economics. Do we, in law enforcement, have unlimited resources? How much in the way of resources would it entail to work these out to the bitter end? How many calls, how many reports and how many resources does it entail?

"In police work you have to understand the fear factor. Crime is perceived. If people have a fear of violence and being harmed, then that's where you spend most of your resources."

Susan Storey, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney in the Seattle-based King County prosecutor's office, says prosecution isn't going to solve the problem. Relying on prosecution, she says, is akin to closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. Educating consumers and merchants about ways to reduce risk is the best way to cut identity theft losses.

"In criminal law we have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. That's a high burden," says Storey. "It's also a property crime, so when you look at a prosecutor's overall responsibility, which runs from homicide to petty theft, ID theft falls somewhere at the lower end of the spectrum.

"We lock doors at night, we have alarm systems and we leave lights on and tell neighbors when we go away. These are simple steps we take to prevent burglary. But a lot of people aren't aware of or haven't taken the steps that can reduce ID theft."

Storey spends much of her time speaking to people about identity theft and ways to avoid being a victim.

"Frankly, compared to the amount of identity theft information that's in the newspaper and on the Internet, I'm surprised at the generally low level of knowledge the people I talk with have about identity theft. I don't know why. People attend and have a high level of interest, and I think they're motivated to take action. But they're very surprised at just how big the crime is and how it can affect your life."

Identity theft victim Harrison has noticed discrepancies in the system, which he believes allow the crime to flourish. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Banking Committee, Harrison noted that when he requests a copy of his credit report, he has to provide his name, address, Social Security number, date of birth and, sometimes, several account numbers. But, he told the committee, creditors aren't held to the same standard.

"Merely by providing a Social Security number, they can access the consumer's credit score and/or credit report. Additionally, it is the creditors that control what is reported in the personal information section, not the consumer. I found 17 different addresses on my various credit reports, and six different phone numbers that were used by my imposter.

"Even my date of birth was changed on my credit reports as a result of information provided by creditors that allowed these fraudulent accounts to be opened. I believe the consumer is the best source for personal and identifying information, not creditors. A creditor making an inquiry in regard to an application should have to correctly provide key and identifying information in order to complete the inquiry, not just the Social Security number. Had this system been in place when my identity was stolen, not a single account could have been opened in my name."

Rawls says he'd like to see companies that have been victimized by identity theft be more responsive.

"In every case we send a victim impact statement to those companies (affected by identity theft.) They're supposed to fill out the statement, whatever their loss is, and restitution is ordered. We can't get them to respond to these victim-impact statements. It's important to the process that they return them. We can use the loss to calculate the sentence. Then, eventually these people get out of prison and they will have to make regular restitution payments. The judgments are good for 20 years."

Stemming the proliferation of identity theft will take cooperation and effort by everyone. Consumers have to get smarter, creditors need to double check identifying information before asking for a credit report, credit bureaus should not release a credit score if there is conflicting identifying information in the reports. Companies need to -- at the very least -- file a police report and all forms that prosecutors need.

In acknowledgement of the damage being done by identity theft, the federal government has mandated stiffer sentences for identity thieves. In 2004, President Bush signed the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act, which automatically adds two years to the sentence of someone convicted of using another person's identity to commit fraud. The act also adds five years to the sentence of someone convicted of using another person's identity to commit an act of terrorism.

Leslie Hunt contributed to this story.

Illustrations by Brandy Kesl

-- Updated: Oct. 12, 2005
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