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Archive for Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Lax prosecution aids ID theft

December 14, 2004

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Last week, I almost bought two luxury cars in New York City. Well, the cars were actually for a nephew and his friend. In this exceedingly generous act, I not only qualified for Uncle of the Year but as the latest victim of identity theft -- one out of an estimated 10 million each year. Like many such victims, my identity was stolen when my Social Security number was pilfered from my employment files -- in this case, CBS News, where I have worked as legal analyst.

Police suspect that a former CBS employee may have been one of two men who appeared at the Courtesy Auto Mall in the Bronx and tried to buy two Lexus sedans. "Uncle" Jonathan Turley of CBS News, who signed for both cars, supplied my Social Security number as proof of identity.

It was only later that a finance officer realized that the last time he saw me on television I was neither particularly young nor African American. When the two men returned to pick up the cars, they suspected that something was up and fled without the cars but with my identity.

Identity thieves have grown increasingly bold. One racked up more than $17,000 on luxury items as Eldrick T. Woods until he ran into a golf fan who knew that this is the real name of golf legend Tiger Woods, and this guy was no Tiger Woods.

In my case, I moved quickly to use a new anti-theft program that began Dec. 1. Congress passed the much-ballyhooed Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, guaranteeing a free credit report once a year. I found out, however, that those of us in the East must wait until Sept. 1, 2005, to get a free report. By that time, Jonathan Turley could be the biggest purchaser of movable luxury items since Liberace.

Victims of identity theft remain easy pickings for thieves because of a lack of real interest from prosecutors and politicians. Since 1998, the identities of 27.3 million Americans have been stolen.

What has Congress done about it? Allow consumers to check their own credit files free, one request a year to the three main credit bureaus. Then, if you find you're a victim, you can ask the bureaus to place an alert on your file, which may slow additional fraudulent requests for credit. (Be careful though: Some services that offer to help you use the new law have reportedly been taking credit card information and automatically enrolling consumers in various monthly services for a fee.)

Of course, it is hard for government to be part of the solution when it is part of the problem. More than 75 percent of all counties include Social Security numbers in at least one public document, exposing 94 percent of the U.S. population to identity theft.

Congress also is unwilling to act on the scourge of instant credit cards that are designed to offer immediate credit with little fuss -- a dream for thieves who can steal your identifying information, use it to get a card and quickly rack up massive purchases before moving on. Likewise, Congress has done little on scams like "phishing," in which thieves trick Internet users into disclosing confidential information on fake Web sites purporting to be connected to Citibank, eBay, PayPal or other companies. One recent study found that, in a 12-month period, nearly 11 million Americans fell for the ploy, losing $1.2 billion.

The biggest problem, however, is a lack of prosecution. In speaking with FBI agents and New York police detectives, I was told that these thieves are rarely prosecuted by district attorneys who want more high-profile cases. For my part, I long for an element of revenge. My preference leans toward the punishment meted out to a child molester in Iran who was sewed up in a bag and thrown down a hill covered with sharp rocks. Yet I would be afraid my identity thief would survive and charge the best medical care available on the quickie charge card he just got in my name.

I was simply told to come to terms with the fact that there will probably be another Jonathan Turley, or even multiple Jonathan Turleys, shopping in my name. Of course, I can now disavow columns that I regret and blame them on those other guys.

The thing that kills me is the thought that Jonathan Turleys could be driving around in Lexuses while I still plod to work in my beat-up Volvo wagon. I now wonder whether, if I had only applied myself more, I could have been somebody with a luxury car and no financial worries ... somebody like ... well ... Jonathan Turley.




Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University.

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