- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 19, 2001

The number of Americans whose identity is stolen more than doubled in the past two years, the government reported yesterday.

Banks and other financial institutions reported 617 cases of identify theft between January and November 2000, compared with 267 cases for all of 1999, according to data from the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as FinCen.

"Identity theft is on the rise," said John Byrne, senior counsel for the American Bankers Association, which participated in the report and urged banks to contribute data.

Identity theft can wreck personal finances and cause steep financial losses. The victims of this crime are often unaware that someone is using their information to rack up big bills. They usually discover the crime when a bank notifies them of a defaulted loan.

Victims of identity theft often must spend thousands of dollars and sometimes years to recover their financial standing and eliminate the debt compiled by someone else.

Fraudulent use of Social Security numbers or stolen mail containing checks issued by credit card companies are the two most popular forms of identify theft, FinCen reported.

In other cases, relatives, roommates or bank employees steal the identity of another person by accessing documents like checking-account statements and Social Security numbers.

FinCen reported that identity theft can be used for used for buying anything from airline tickets to new cars and homes.

Financial institutions such as Visa, MasterCard and large banks say their fraud losses are in the hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

"We've done a concerted effort within the association and our membership to help both the bank and the consumers that they work with to deal with this issue," said Mr. Byrne. "It's an attack on two fronts, if you will education and enforcement."

Educating consumers about protecting their identity and helping them recover their identity once stolen are important, said Mr. Byrne.

"Part of what we are also trying to do, as an industry, is get law enforcement more involved in investigating and prosecuting these cases," he said, "because they are definitely increasing."

Last month, the FBI arrested 62 persons in a coast-to-coast Internet scheme that cheated 56,000 people out of more than $117 million.

The arrests were part of a massive federal and state crackdown targeting Internet scams involving 61 federal, state and local investigations.

The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission also follow identity-theft cases.

The FTC received 2,330 calls a week regarding identity theft in January, a number that is average for most weeks, an agency spokeswoman said.

A number of those calls came from D.C. residents. The capital has the highest concentration of complaints per 100,000 people, according to the FTC, followed by Nevada, Arizona, California and Oregon.

D.C. residents are particularly vulnerable to becoming victims of identity theft because their driver's licenses unlike those of Maryland and Virginia do not have a hologram and are easy to duplicate.

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