- The Washington Times - Friday, May 3, 2002

Attorney General John Ashcroft yesterday announced a nationwide crackdown on identity theft, saying hundreds of thousands of Americans each year are bilked out of millions of dollars by thieves who steal their identifies.

"Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States," Mr. Ashcroft said during a Justice Department press conference attended by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, who has proposed legislation to stiffen sentences for those convicted of stealing someone's identity.

"An estimated 500,000 to 700,000 Americans each year have their identities stolen, and many more Americans are victimized by the crimes facilitated by identify theft crimes ranging from bank and credit card fraud to international terrorism," Mr. Ashcroft said.

Identity theft has been described by the government as the illegal use of a person's name, Social Security number, driver's license, credit-card numbers, automated teller machine cards or other personal information for their own use. The Federal Trade Commission maintains a database that keeps tabs on fraud complaints. Last year, identity theft accounted for 42 percent of all complaints received, more than any other category of consumer fraud.

Mr. Ashcroft's ordered crackdown began immediately with what the attorney general called a two-pronged initiative to attack "this growing crime," including:

•A coordinated, nationwide law enforcement effort led by the 93 U.S. attorneys across the country to prosecute identity theft.

•The development of legislation to address the most serious cases to provide greater protection to the public.

Mrs. Feinstein noted that while California leads the nation in identity thefts, it was the "single largest growing crime in America." She said that the average loss in each case nationwide was about $18,000 and that it took the victims nearly two years to recover their identity.

"The fact that the attorney general is taking the lead hopefully will be a message to United States attorneys all across the land to begin to prosecute under this legislation," she said.

Mrs. Feinstein said that under her bill, those convicted of identity theft would receive additional time in prison, ranging from two years in most cases to up to five years for those convicted in terrorist acts. She explained that the enhancements would be in addition to any regular sentence handed out.

Mr. Ashcroft said that for the past month, federal, state and local law enforcement had conducted a nationwide sweep to identify, pursue and prosecute individuals engaged in identity theft and that 73 criminal prosecutions had been brought against 135 persons nationwide.

Yesterday, he said, federal authorities had begun 25 separate prosecutions across the country on charges of identity theft including cases in which defendants "bilked Americans of millions of dollars, preyed on the elderly and destroyed the credit of hardworking families."

Mr. Ashcroft said in one case, the suspects located houses owned by elderly citizens and assumed their identities in order to fraudulently sell or refinance the properties.

Other cases, he said, involved the selling of Social Security numbers on EBay; the theft by a hospital employee of the identities of 393 patients to obtain their credit cards; the theft of the identity of a company executive, whose 176,000 shares of stock shares were sold; and the arrest of a counterfeiting suspect who attempted to fake his own death by killing a homeless man and fooling authorities into thinking the defendant had died.

Mr. Ashcroft praised Mrs. Feinstein for what he called her "extraordinary leadership in protecting the American people from identity theft and the crimes that it facilitates," adding that the Justice Department was "committed to seeing that criminals and terrorists cannot find refuge in the identities of law-abiding Americans."

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