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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.
"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
"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
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
Illustrations by Brandy Kesl