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14 tips to avoid identity theft




Identity theft again tops the Federal Trade Commision's list of consumer complaints. Frank W. Abagnale, a reformed thief, is now a respected authority on identity theft and other forms of fraud. His book, "Catch Me If You Can," which details his criminal escapades, was made into a feature film by Steven Spielberg and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale. Frank Abagnale wrote this commentary for http://www.Bankrate.com


Identity thieves rob more than 500,000 Americans every year. Credit can be damaged, and fixing it can cost you hundreds of dollars and take hundreds of hours of your time. These steps will help you reduce your risk of identity theft.


1. Guard your Social Security number. It is the key to your credit report and banking accounts and is the prime target of criminals.


2. Monitor your credit report. It contains your SSN, present and prior employers, a listing of all account numbers, including those that have been closed, and your overall credit score. After applying for a loan, credit card, rental or anything else that requires a credit report, request that your SSN on the application be truncated or completely obliterated and your original credit report be shredded before your eyes or returned to you once a decision has been made. A lender or rental manager needs to retain only your name and credit score to justify a decision.


3. Shred all old bank and credit statements and "junk mail" credit card offers before trashing them. Use a crosscut shredder. Crosscut shredders cost more than regular shredders but are superior.


4. Remove your name from the marketing lists of the three credit reporting bureaus to reduce the number of pre-approved credit offers you receive.


5. Add your name to the name-deletion lists of the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service and Telephone Preference Service used by banks and other marketers.


6. Do not carry extra credit cards or other important identity documents except when needed.


7. Place the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine. Copy both sides of your license and credit cards so you have all the account numbers, expiration dates and phone numbers if your wallet or purse is stolen.


8. Do not mail bill payments and checks from home. They can be stolen from your mailbox and washed clean in chemicals. Take them to the post office.


9. Do not print your Social Security number on your checks.


10. Order your Social Security Earnings and Benefits statement once a year to check for fraud.


11. Examine the charges on your credit card statements before paying them.


12. Cancel unused credit card accounts.


13. Never give your credit card number or personal information over the phone unless you have initiated the call and trust that business.


14. Subscribe to a credit report monitoring service that will notify you whenever someone applies for credit in your name.


Frank W. Abagnale Frank W. Abagnale is one of the world's most respected authorities on the subjects of forgery, embezzlement and secure documents. For more than 25 years he has lectured to and consulted with hundreds of financial institutions, corporations and government agencies around the world.


Mr. Abagnale has been associated with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for more than 25 years. He lectures extensively at the FBI Academy and for the FBI's field offices. More than 14,000 financial institutions, corporations and law enforcement agencies use his fraud-prevention programs. In 1998, he was selected as a distinguished member of "Pinnacle 400" by CNN Financial News.


Mr. Abagnale believes that punishment for fraud and recovery of stolen funds is so rare, prevention is the only viable course of action.





How safe is your personal information?




Personal financial information is as good as gold. Companies mine it, trade it and sell it. Scamsters use it to steal your credit -- or in some cases your entire financial identity.


Think you're doing a reasonably good job of safeguarding your personal financial information? You might be surprised. Take this quiz and find out just how safe your personal information really is:




You get a call from your credit card company. A strange charge has shown up on your account for a $400 office phone system. After assuring the rep that the charge is not yours, he offers to take the bogus charge off your bill. He also must verify that you are still in possession of the card via confirmation of the security code on the back of the card. You:


Give the numbers and be glad that your card company was on the alert.


Refuse to share the number -- but give some other form of confirmation -- and ignore the bogus charge when your statement arrives because you know you've already handled it.


Hang up on the guy and call your card company.




You found those one-of-a-kind Lucy and Desi salt-and-pepper shakers online that would make the perfect anniversary present for your parents. To pay for them you reach for a:


Credit card.


Debit card.


Pre-loaded credit card.




Which of the following should not have your Social Security number on it:




Driver license


Medical insurance card


All of the above




You get an application for a great new pre-approved credit card. But, wise consumer that you are, you decide you already have enough plastic, thank you. Instead, you:


Toss it in the first trash can you see.


Take it home and toss it in the trash.


Take it home and run it through the shredder




You've got a stack of bills to mail. You:


Stick them in your mailbox and put the flag up.


Drive to the post office.


Give them to one of the kids in your office mail room.




You regularly use online checking and bill paying:


At the office.


At home.


At home and at the office.




Your bank is allowed to share your personal information like account numbers, average balance and shopping patterns:


Regardless of what you do.


Only if you give them permission.


Unless you tell them otherwise.




Your Social Security card is:


In your wallet.


In one of your dresser drawers (under a stack of clean underwear).


In a locked file cabinet.




You check your credit reports:


Almost never.


Once a year.


When you're getting ready to make a big purchase, like a home or car.




You're looking for a new job. On the Internet you post your resume:


On as many sites as possible.


On as many sites as possible, but with limited contact information.


On carefully screened sites, and with limited contact information.


Please go to this webpage to take the quiz.





Yeah, I took the quiz.

Read it for yourself:





How safe is your personal information?


Personal financial information is as good as gold. Companies mine it, trade it and sell it. Scamsters use it to steal your credit -- or in some cases your entire financial identity.


Think you're doing a reasonably good job of safeguarding your personal financial information? You might be surprised. Take this quiz and find out just how safe your personal information really is:





You get a call from your credit card company. A strange charge has shown up on your account for a $400 office phone system. After assuring the rep that the charge is not yours, he offers to take the bogus charge off your bill. He also must verify that you are still in possession of the card via confirmation of the security code on the back of the card. You:


You answered: Hang up on the guy and call your card company.


Right, hang up. The call is one of the latest identity theft scams, says Jordana Beebe, communications director for The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a national nonprofit consumer education group. The ''card company rep'' is a scamster who either wants to a) use your card for a few more weeks by lulling you into a false sense of security about the extra charges on your bill or B) use the security number to make some extra purchase over the Internet. So hang up! (And if you can get the return number via *69 -- give it to the card company when you call.)


And if you ever believe you have become a victim of identity theft, call the Federal Trade Commission hotline at: (877) 438-4338 for step-by-step advice on what to do next.




You found those one-of-a-kind Lucy and Desi salt-and-pepper shakers online that would make the perfect anniversary present for your parents. To pay for them you reach for a:


You answered: Credit card.


Right! Anytime you buy on the Internet, use a credit card. Not only do you have the ability to dispute charges if the merchandise isn't what was promised, but you're not giving a total stranger -- or a hacker -- access to your bank account and the ability to clean it out at a moment's notice. Pre-loaded credit cards are better than debits, but a true credit card is the smartest choice.


In addition, ''make sure any transactions you do online have some sort of encryption,'' says John Ulzheimer, business development manager for MyFico.com, a division of Fair Isaac Corp., the company that developed credit scoring.




Which of the following should not have your Social Security number on it:


You answered: All of the above


Right you are! For the most part, a Social Security number is used for two basic reasons: accessing your tax records and checking your credit rating. If you're not applying for credit or getting a new job, you don't need to be sharing that number.


States are giving drivers the option of using a random driver license number rather than a Social Security number. And many health insurers are getting away from using Social Security numbers, as well.


But if your insurance company still uses the old SSN, leave your insurance card at home unless you have a doctor's appointment, says Gerri Detweiler, author of ''The Ultimate Credit Handbook.''


And if anyone ever calls you and wants you to give or ''verify'' your Social Security number, always refuse, says Beebe.




You get an application for a great new pre-approved credit card. But, wise consumer that you are, you decide you already have enough plastic, thank you. Instead, you:


You answered: Take it home and run it through the shredder


Good thinking! OK, just ripping it into smallish pieces is good enough. But you don't want to put anything that sensitive into a public trash can -- or even your own trash -- without destroying it first. While you can never make yourself impervious to identity theft, the idea is to ''make it as inconvenient for fraudsters as possible,'' says Ulzheimer. While you took a pass on the plastic, a less-than-honest person might snag the card in your name.


Want to cut back on the deluge of junk mail choking your mail box? Contact the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service or write:


Direct Marketing Association

Mail Preference Service

P.O. Box 642

Carmel, NY 10512




You've got a stack of bills to mail. You:


You answered: Drive to the post office.


You're right. That red flag on your mailbox is an invitation to thieves that all kinds of personal info like checks, account numbers and credit information is ready and waiting, says Detweiler.




You regularly use online checking and bill paying:


You answered: At home.


Right. Computers capture personal information. So ''think twice about logging on to your personal accounts from work,'' says Detweiler. Your information ''might be available to someone else on the same computer.'' Instead, do your online personal finance work (or shopping) on your own computer where you control who has access.




Your bank is allowed to share your personal information like account numbers, average balance and shopping patterns:


You answered: Only if you give them permission.


Hah, you only wish it were that easy. When it comes to your financial privacy, silence is not golden. Many institutions that collect financial information, including banks, brokerage firms and insurance companies, are allowed to share your personal information with third parties unless you tell them otherwise. And the information may include everything from your name and address, balance and payment history to the type of account you have, says a spokesperson with the Federal Reserve.


Every so often -- usually once a year -- the institution must tell you how it shares information and give you the opportunity to ''opt out.'' Unfortunately, the notices are often written in tiny print and legalese, and the majority of consumers don't even bother to read them, much less respond.


But it's not too late. If you want to limit how your financial information is shared and with whom, you can contact your financial institutions and ask what you need to do to make them stop.


In addition, two leading records compilers -- DataQuick and Acxiom -- offer you the chance to opt out of having your data sold or shared, says Beebe. Contact Dataquick at (877) 970-9171 and Acxiom at (877) 774-2094.




Your Social Security card is:


You answered: In a locked file cabinet.


Right. If you leave it in the dresser, anyone who has access to your house -- babysitters, workmen etc. -- potentially has access to your personal financial information such as your birth certificate, banking records and Social Security card. And a surprising number of identity theft cases involve co-workers, friends or relatives, says Detweiler.


So at home treat your personal papers like the old-fashioned liquor cabinet: Use a lock to keep out unwelcome attention. And at work, lock up your purse, says Detweiler. ''There are a lot more incidents of workplace theft than people realize,'' she says.


And get that card out of your wallet or purse. There's no reason to carry it with you. If it's stolen, you've made it really easy for someone to steal your good name along with it.




You check your credit reports:


You answered: Once a year.


Right! It makes sense to check your credit reports once a year. There are three, one with each of the major credit bureaus. Is all of the information correct? And do you see any accounts listed that aren't yours?


Granted, if you only check once a year, you could be giving an identity theft 11 1/2 months before you find out what's going on in your good name. But you also have to strike a balance between financial vigilance and financial paranoia. And making a habit of checking your reports once a year, especially if you don't do it at all now, is one more weapon in your arsenal.


In addition, you can tell the bureaus not to give out your information for promotional purposes by calling 888.5.OPTOUT (888.567.8688) or contacting:


Equifax, Inc.


PO Box 740123

Atlanta, GA 30374-0123



Consumer Opt-Out

701 Experian Parkway

Allen, TX 75013



Marketing List Opt Out

PO Box 97328

Jackson, MS 39288-7328




You're looking for a new job. On the Internet you post your resume:


You answered: On carefully screened sites, and with limited contact information.


Correct. Too many people don't realize just how much personal information they're giving out while they are looking for a job, says Detweiler. And you have to be particularly careful about what you give out online, she says. Instead, Detweiler says, ''Look at the company's privacy policy, make sure it's a legitimate site and keep personal information on the resume to a minimum -- just enough so that they can reach you.''






John Harrison -- the face of identity theft




Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing and least-understood crimes in America. Those who have never been victimized tend to brush it off. No one gets injured, they say, and the victim isn't responsible for the debts anyway.


If it happens, they figure, it'll be a hassle, but an explanation of the situation will solve the problem. The bad debt will come off the credit report; the emptied checking account will be reimbursed by the bank.

John Harrison


But it's not that simple. Through no fault of his own, John Harrison's identity was stolen.


As a result, his credit record was ruined and his productive life thrown into an endless maze of debt collectors, pension pay garnishments, letters and affidavits, phone calls from lawyers, dunning notes from the IRS, frustration and despair.


The problem is compounded by corporations that don't press charges; financial institutions and credit bureaus that spew out credit without adequately checking backgrounds; and police departments and judicial systems, bogged down by violent crime and post-Sept. 11 concerns, that have inadequate resources to stop the crime, help the victim or prosecute the criminal.


On Dec. 11, 2001, in North Carolina, police were called for a domestic dispute. The suspect fled, screaming off into the night on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. A sheriff's deputy caught up with him and asked for his driver's license. He didn't have one, so he handed over a military ID card.


Hundreds of miles away in Connecticut, retired Army Captain John Harrison was awakened at 2 a.m. on Dec. 12 by a phone call from the sheriff's department in Burke County, N.C. It was a call he'd been hoping for.


Harrison had retired from the Army in 1999. Two years later, in July of 2001, Jerry Wayne Phillips, then 21, was issued an active duty military ID card in Harrison's name with Harrison's Social Security number at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Harrison has no idea how.


Phillips wasted no time. By the time he was arrested that December night, he had run up $260,000 in debts in Harrison's name. According to Harrison, Phillips opened four checking and two savings accounts. He also started credit accounts with dozens of companies to fund his spending splurge, which included two motorcycles, the Harley and a Kawasaki; two trucks, a time-share in Hilton Head and a beach-home rental in Virginia Beach.


Burke County investigators say at the time of his arrest they found an estimated $25,000 worth of stolen property "believed to have been obtained using the false identification."


John Harrison's first clue that something was wrong had come in October when a credit union called him about an account. He said he didn't have an account with them and tossed it off as a problem on their end.


But a call the next month from the police department in Beaumont, Texas, couldn't be blown off. The detective was investigating the purchase of a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a check drawn on a Bank of America account. The check was signed Jhon (sic) Harrison.


"The detective knew I was an identity theft victim," Harrison said. "He had seen my credit report. He asked if I knew about identity theft.


"He could see all of these accounts had been opened in just a four-month period and that I had a great credit history before that. Accounts opened in the last 20 years were in good standing and being paid. Then there's this four-month window.


"He asked me to send him an affidavit verifying who I was, that I had retired from the military and lived in Connecticut. He told me to contact the credit bureaus and to look up identity theft on the Federal Trade Commission Web site."


Harrison, who had never even seen his credit report, immediately got busy doing his homework and a month later when Phillips was caught, he was confident it would all be resolved quickly.


"In the beginning, I felt like I'd nip this in the bud. I had the police report, I'd been retired for two years and all these accounts were opened as an active duty military man. I even had articles showing Jerry Phillips in handcuffs and they said he had stolen John Harrison's ID.


"I thought I just needed to be proactive, show the creditors and I'd be straightened out in a few months. That's not the way it went."


Six months later, Harrison's life was upside down. There was so much stress that each morning he was greeted by a sickening tightness in his chest.


"I felt so much anxiety. It was so strong it scared me. Fifteen minutes after I woke up I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. I didn't know what to do. There was always this conflict between do I go to work or do I sit down and work on resolving this identity theft? There was always a letter I needed to write or an affidavit I needed to take care of. New problems were showing up on my credit report and I knew there'd be another letter from some debt collector."


Harrison's 20 years in the Army took him from Okinawa, Japan, to the first Gulf War. Halfway through his career he was commissioned as a lieutenant and served with the 3rd Infantry in Germany, the 4th Infantry in Colorado, and the 82nd Airborne in North Carolina. He finished as a captain in Special Operations at Fort Bragg. It was a career, and a credit history, that served Jerry Wayne Phillips very well.


"He was completely living off me," Harrison said. "He was living as me. He never got a job, he didn't have to. He had military uniforms and was doing most of his dirty work near military bases."


Harrison says Phillips opened 61 credit or bank accounts in Harrison's name. He applied for, and received, $7300 in loans from Navy Federal Credit Union. Some of that money was used to fund checking accounts. He wrote nearly $59,000 in bad checks.


"There were 112 checks that I found off those four checking accounts. Every one of those places is essentially a separate account that I have to clear up. I have to wait for it to show up in ChexSystems or until it goes to a debt collector.


Harrison spent so much time trying to clear his name that he lost his job and was unemployed for seven months. Adding insult to injury, the military started garnishing his retirement pay. Phillips had run up a $5,700 debt at the Army-Air Force Exchange Service. Since it was a debt owed to the government, and Harrison was getting a government retirement check, they docked it.


"It's hard to understand this unless it's happened to you. Generally, the first question someone asks me is, 'Do you have to pay back the debts?' When I say 'no' they figure, OK, you just have to write letters. Well, it's not that simple."



Throughout his ordeal, Harrison continued paying his own legitimate debts but eventually, as those creditors learned of his problems, they turned on him.


"My own creditors either closed my accounts if I had no balance or lowered my credit limit to where my balance stood. MBNA, they followed it down -- every time I made a payment they lowered my credit limit. The account started with a $9,000 limit. In 2003 they took away $5,000 when my balance was $3,900. Then they took off another $1,100 when my balance got down to $2,700. Citibank closed a $10,000 account. My debt to equity ratio is probably 80 or 90 percent. I'm maxed out because they keep taking my credit away."


Debt collectors

"I didn't make a lot of headway with debt collectors. They're not in the business of resolution. They want their money or don't waste their time.


"I had a debt collector call me. I said I'm an identity theft victim and I've contacted that company. I spent 10 minutes telling him everything I've been through and he was very sympathetic. Then he said, 'Let me tell you what we can do. I have authority to lower this debt if that will help you.'


"It makes your blood boil. Someone hears you and you think they got it, but they don't. Their mission isn't to help you; it's to get money from you.


"Phillips opened an account with Cellular One and the debt collector is still reporting it to Experian (credit bureau.) The first debt collector took it off and now they've come back a second time with a different debt collector. That's what you have to go through. It's the same company and the same dollar amount so I know it's the same debt.


"There are over 30 debt collectors I've dealt with and I don't think a single one ever responded to my letters. The only way to get it resolved is in direct communication with someone who says, 'Here's what we need -- a police report. I need to have you fill out this form and get it notarized and send it back to me. Then we can take care of it.' If you don't, it's sitting in someone's computer and it will come back to you."



Harrison says Phillips opened a checking account at a Bank of America branch at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, writing bad checks worth thousands of dollars. Harrison spoke with a vice president at the bank and documented his situation. The vice president sent Harrison a letter verifying that it wasn't his account and that he was squared away with the bank. After Phillips' arrest, a judge granted the bank $6400 in restitution.


"Then I got a letter from the IRS saying that I owed $1900 in back taxes because of a $6400 debt that was forgiven in my name. That's where the emotional distress comes from. You think it's hard dealing with a debt collector; the IRS is worse."



"I was diagnosed with acute stress disorder. My therapist says I'm a person who likes having a certain amount of structure in his life, having control over things and that identity theft takes that away from you. Things happen whether you do anything or not and that tears up a person like me. While I was unemployed [the therapist] didn't make me pay. She said, 'You'll get through this and then you can pay me.'


If it weren't for that domestic disturbance that fateful December night, Jerry Wayne Phillips might never have been caught. He pleaded guilty to one count of identity theft and was sentenced on Oct. 22, 2002, to 41 months in prison.


John Harrison is still trying to clear his credit record.




Identity theft -- don't be a victim




Identity theft may be the fastest-growing crime in America, but it had to rack up some pretty impressive numbers before corporations and law enforcement started to take it seriously.


How many identity theft victims have walked into a police department and spent time filling out a report that was shunted to some dusty folder? How many companies have fallen prey to an identity thief with a fraudulent credit card and have opted against pursuing charges because it would cost more than the amount the fraudster got away with? Plus the loss is a write-off anyway.


Identity theft is a crime that turns the victim's life upside down. But too often law enforcement officials, overwhelmed with violent crime, told identity theft victims there wasn't much they could do, and too often companies wrote off the loss as a cost of doing business.


Now that identity theft is spiraling out of control, it's beginning to get official attention. Police departments are creating fraud units that take identity theft very seriously. Companies that used to simply write off losses are getting more aggressive about pursuing charges.


Identity theft is more common than you might think: Within the past 12 months, identity theft affected over 9.3 million Americans, says a 2005 identity fraud survey report co-released by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy & Research. The study was a longitudinal update to the Federal Trade Commission's 2003 Identity Theft Survey Report, which largely revealed similar figures. One look at the following statistics will prove one thing: Identity theft is a costly, pesky problem that has yet to go away.


* Victims: 9.3 million

* Loss to businesses: $52.6 billion

* Average loss to individual victims: $5,686

* Average number of hours victims spent resolving their problems: 28


No one is saying that solving an identity theft should take precedence over a murder, but perhaps it should be taken as seriously as a nonviolent bank robbery.


Identity theft victims say their frustration and anxiety are compounded by credit bureaus, banks and credit card companies that aren't aggressively attacking the problem and the fragmented approach of the legal system in dealing with the crime.


Most cases involve at least two victims -- the individual whose identity is stolen or whose credit or bank account is compromised and the company or retailer that granted credit or accepted a check or credit card from the bad guy.


John Harrison says his identity was stolen by a man who opened dozens of accounts in his name and defrauded companies out of $260,000, in a spree that lasted only four months. Harrison claims that the corporations involved too often simply write off the loss as a cost of doing business and don't bother pressing charges.


Are companies that don't pursue charges, in effect, helping to perpetrate the crime of identity theft? There's a fair amount of finger-pointing that goes on when you ask this question. But it's clear that for many companies it's a bottom-line decision.


In 2004, when we first reported this story, we spoke with a few of the companies that were victimized by Jerry Wayne Phillips, the man who pleaded guilty to one count of identity fraud in Harrison's case and was sentenced to 41 months in prison.


Phillips had rented property in Virginia Beach, Va., and written checks to Sandbridge Realty totaling $4,042. It's not clear how many bounced, but Sandbridge general manager Cathy Ruizgonbert said, at the time, that no one from law enforcement told them he'd been caught, and the amount of money, she said, wasn't worth pursuing anyway.


"We would press charges depending on what we would have to do. We're a small company; we don't have the staff to chase after this. We won't hire a lawyer or go out of state. Sometimes," said Ruizgonbert, "you just say, 'I'm glad they're gone,' and you move forward."


Phillips used Harrison's identity to buy two vehicles, worth approximately $85,000, from Ford dealerships. Police recovered the vehicles, and Ford was able to sell them and recover partial restitution. At the time, Ford Credit spokeswoman Melinda Wilson didn't address the specific incident, but she said that even though Ford had gotten tougher on identity theft, prosecution is left up to prosecutors.


"We used to have an unwritten policy that if we recovered the vehicle, we moved on and didn't prosecute," she said. But Ford has gotten very serious about fraud, Wilson said, and if they know someone intended to defraud them, they work to prosecute.


"It's an issue of cooperation with the local prosecutors or district attorneys. Most will not pursue charges if the dollar amount isn't high enough. It's not a violent crime, and they have other more pressing crimes to deal with," said Wilson.


Citigroup and American Express, which also lost money in the Phillips case, said they, too, rely on the judgment of law enforcement when it comes to prosecution.


Robert Rawls is an assistant U.S. attorney in the eastern district of Texas where the Phillips case was prosecuted. Rawls ended up with the case when Phillips was arrested on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle he had "bought" at a local dealership, which filed a police complaint when it caught on to his scam.


Although Phillips entered a guilty plea to only that one count involving the Harley-Davidson, other crimes attributed to him were considered in determining his sentence. While some companies may not follow through with prosecution, complaints they have filed with various police jurisdictions can be included.


"Obviously he committed a number of other ID theft transactions across the country. All the losses nationwide were included at sentencing, even though there's only one charge in our district. That's not uncommon," says Rawls.


"He enters a guilty plea to that one count and a pre-sentencing report is prepared that brings in similar conduct he's done. There was an extensive investigation. Otherwise he would have gotten a much lower sentence. If it were just Harley-Davidson, it could have been just about a year.


"We prosecute almost every ID theft case that comes in and the local district attorney's office pursues a fair amount also. There is no dollar amount; it's more the quality of the evidence. For a long time we had difficulty getting records from credit card companies. It wasn't until it had an impact where losses reached a certain percentage level that they became a little more cooperative in an effort to stem ID theft."


The U.S. Justice Department, which prosecutes identity theft cases, provided two officials for this article but requested that they not be identified. They say the dollar amount of the loss could be a factor in determining whether a case will be prosecuted, but it's only one of several things considered.


"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.


- advertisement -


"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.



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