Time to stamp out ID theft

No wonder identity theft is the fastest-growing crime. Our common sense hasn’t caught up with our technology.

We let anyone have our Social Security and driver’s-license numbers. We might as well leave our wallets on a store counter and walk away. A thief with a computer can quickly empty our bank accounts.

The bad guys consider our personal information better than cash. They can only spend cash once, but with our personal information, they can create false identities to open credit-card and checking accounts.

The next thing you know, they’re buying boats in your name and you don’t know it until the repo guy is at your door looking for the Chris Craft Corsair 36.

I once interviewed a Southern California woman who didn’t know her identity had been stolen until she was called by a collection agency demanding money on an unpaid cell-phone bill. In a panic, she got a copy of her credit report and found out that more than $300,000 in fraudulent charges had been made in her name.

Her life has been a nightmare since as she has tried to straighten out her credit report. Now few believe that she’s the victim, and most call her a deadbeat.

But even if consumers don’t make their information easily available to ID thieves, someone else might. Bureaucrats in California’s San Joaquin Valley have been helping out the bad guys with their inept handling of personal information, and it seems Fresno County doesn’t have a clue there’s a problem.

First, the county lost a computer disk with personal information from thousands of home health-care workers. Then hundreds of birth-certificate applications with parents’ information went missing when they were sent to state officials in Sacramento. In February, a laptop computer was stolen from a county office. The computer belonged to Supportive Services Inc., a nonprofit agency, and contained information on thousands of CalWORKs clients.

County officials say they have adequate safeguards for protecting personal information. Hardly. I wonder if they even understand their complicity in identity theft? Maybe they just don’t want to admit liability because of the mess they’d created for people.

You have to wonder why anyone would be dumb enough to put all that information on a laptop computer that can be easily stolen. It happens all over the country.

Don’t forget the 2006 incident in which 26.5 million veterans were put at risk after a burglary at the Maryland home of a Veterans Affairs official. A stolen laptop and hard drive contained the names, birth dates and Social Security numbers of veterans.

This wasn’t a few hundred people affected. It was millions, and those in charge merely shrugged their shoulders. You want to grab them and say, “Don’t put all that information on a laptop that can be stolen.”

No wonder Fresno County supervisor candidate Debbie Poochigian refused to give the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce her personal information during the chamber’s recent endorsement process. Chamber officials may say they’ll protect that information, but a burglary at their office could make them all look foolish.

Poochigian should know a little bit about identity theft. Her husband, former state Sen. Chuck Poochigian, was one of the Legislature’s top experts on the issue. During his tenure, he pushed to have state laws keep up with this developing crime.

The controversy over the chamber’s practice was reported in the newspaper the same day that Fresno police busted a ring in which a woman and her accomplices may be responsible for 500 ID theft cases, causing several hundred thousand dollars in losses.

This case highlights the big problem with this crime: The information thieves need is available everywhere they look. They got personal information in burglaries, snatched it from mailboxes, rifled through garbage bins and broke into vehicles.

The chamber controversy involving Poochigian and the big ID theft bust Wednesday could help raise the profile of this crime. But as long as businesses, individuals and government are careless with personal information, the thieves will happily use it.

I’m angry that the Legislature had coddled these thieves. The Democratic majority blocked Chuck Poochigian’s efforts, including not increasing penalties for criminals who steal financial information.

What we’re doing now isn’t working. It’s time to substantially increase jail time for ID thieves. It might even be worth looking at whether the state needs a “three strikes” law for identity theft. Get convicted of ID theft three times and you go away for life. Now that would get the attention of those who rob you with their computers.

(Jim Boren is The Fresno Bee’s editorial-page editor. E-mail him at jboren(at)fresnobee.com.)

3 Responses to "Time to stamp out ID theft"

  1. yarply  April 22, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    There could BE NO ID theft of consequence if we HAD NO Ids. The more IDs and cards we have the easier it is to steal and use. The government knows this and so should everyone. People brought this on themselves when they bought into the whole idea of credit cards and other ID type crap.

  2. yarply  April 22, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    Deleted.

  3. pondering_it_all  April 23, 2008 at 12:42 am

    Without any form of id, we would be reduced to only trusting people we know personally. That would destroy about 95% of the US economy! So obviously the solution is not getting rid of id, but rather making it strong enough that it can’t be stolen.

    There are some pretty simple ideas from computer security that could be applied. For example, people could choose to have an id chip installed under their skin. An inexpensive chip reader could send the chip a very long random number, and the chip would respond with a calculated response that positively identifies the owner. Thieves could steal this type of id only by kidnapping or cutting the chip out of the owner, which would be immediately obvious to anybody. That would make id theft a major felony or even a capital offense.

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