- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

Identity-theft complaints nearly doubled from 2001 to 2002 and were the most common fraud complaint reported by American consumers last year, a government agency said yesterday.
The District has the highest rate of identity-theft complaints in the nation, the agency report said. Credit-card fraud, bank fraud, and phone or utility fraud topped the list of complaints from District consumers.
Washington's residents also were victimized by government documents and benefits, and loans illegally obtained.
Identify theft or identity fraud involves stealing another person's identifying information such as a Social Security number, date of birth and mother's name and then using it to establish credit, run up debt or take over existing financial accounts.
Nationwide, consumer-fraud complaints jumped more than 70 percent to 380,000 in 2002, and the dollar loss grew to $343 million, the Federal Trade Commission said. Identity theft accounted for 43 percent of all complaints, the FTC said.
The FTC collected its numbers from a government database of complaints.
The higher number of complaints stems at least in part from greater awareness of identity theft, FTC outreach efforts and better reporting, said J. Howard Beales III, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Even with greater awareness, the prevalence of identity theft is difficult to gauge.
A government report released last year showed that some individuals do not know they have been victimized until months after the fact, and some choose not to report the crime.
Estimates of total victims those reporting and those not reporting range from 250,000 to 750,000 victims annually, the General Accounting Office report said.
"There really aren't good statistics on identity theft," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based organization.
James H. Vaules, a former supervisor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation's white-collar-crime section, said identity theft is a rapidly growing crime because the information is so readily available.
Thieves can steal wallets, hack into computer systems or use an insider at a company to pilfer personal data, he said.
Congress in October 1998 made identity theft a separate crime against the person whose identity was stolen, broadened the scope of the offense to include the misuse of information as well as documents, and provided punishment generally a fine or imprisonment even if there is no monetary loss.
Even with such laws on the books, Mrs. Givens said that identity theft is a low-risk crime.
The credit industry is not adequately screening credit applications, few cases are prosecuted and those that are, she said, generally result in weak sentences.
The Justice Department could not provide up-to-date statistics but said that it has worked diligently on the problem of identity theft since Congress made it an offense.
The department noted that identity theft is often a component of other criminal activities, including international terrorism.
Last spring, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered federal prosecutors nationwide to speed up investigations and trials of people accused of stealing identities, the Associated Press reported.
In the District, the Secret Service investigates identity-theft cases, a Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman said. The Secret Service was not immediately available for comment.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, a longtime advocate for identity-theft laws, will introduce several bills in the next few weeks seeking greater protections for Social Security numbers and stiffer penalties for identity thieves, according to AP.
For victims, credit reports can be cleaned up but valuable time and money usually for out-of-pocket and sometimes legal expenses are lost.
"The real damage is the loss of privacy, the invasion of space, and the time it takes to rectify the credit report," Mr. Vaules said.

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