- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

The Choice Point Inc. identity theft case follows similar incidents recently that show the vulnerability of consumers to electronic fraud.

It also underscores the fact that consumers can do little to protect themselves other than checking their credit reports often and being careful about to whom they give their personal information.

“We live in an information-rich society,” said Beth Givens, director of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer information and advocacy organization. “If someone is intent on committing identity theft, it’s not all that difficult.”

Obtaining personal financial information can be as easy as stealing mail sent by a bank or looking at workplace records of customers and fellow employees, she said.

Most often, thieves steal the information from checkbooks or wallets, according to the Better Business Bureau. Only 12 percent of identity theft results from computer crimes.

Recent incidents include:

• As many as 45,000 former military and intelligence workers have been informed they risk identity theft after thieves stole their names and Social Security numbers from computer records of government contractor Science Application International Corp. on Jan. 25.

The list of potential victims includes some of the nation’s top former military and intelligence officials, including former CIA Director John M. Deutch and former Defense Secretary William Perry.

• Last month, computer hackers stole the names, Social Security numbers and other information of about 30,000 students and staff members at George Mason University. The information was in a computer server, which school officials shut down after discovering the intrusion. They also notified everyone affected.

Similar incidents have occurred at the University of California at Berkeley and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

• Also last month, a computer technician involved in what prosecutors said was the biggest identity theft in U.S. history was sentenced in federal court in New York to 14 years in prison.

Philip A. Cummings, 35, a former help-desk worker for Teledata Communications Inc., pleaded guilty to conspiracy, wire fraud and fraud in a scheme estimated to cost tens of thousands of victims a total of $50 million to $100 million.

His employer provides banks with computerized access to credit-information databases. Mr. Cummings was accused of selling passwords and codes for downloading consumer credit reports to a co-conspirator.

• In December, a Red Cross employee and two other persons were charged with stealing computerized information on about 40 blood donors in Philadelphia, then using the information to obtain about $268,000 in cash and merchandise.

Red Cross data entry clerk Danielle Baker and her accomplices are accused of using names, Social Security numbers, places of employment and other information to obtain credit, cash counterfeit checks and acquire bank loans under assumed names.

Afterward, some Philadelphia employers canceled their blood drives, costing the Red Cross $455,000 and forcing it to purchase blood from other parts of the country.

• In November, thieves stole computers containing account information on thousands of Wells Fargo & Co. mortgage and student loan customers from an Atlanta office. The financial services company has about 5.8 million mortgage and student loan customers.

It was the third time in about a year computers containing personal data of Wells Fargo customers were stolen.

Auditing firm Deloitte & Touche LLP found in May that 83 percent of the nation’s financial institutions acknowledged their computer systems had been hit in the past year, up from 39 percent a year earlier.

Identity theft tops the list of consumer complaints, according to the most recent Federal Trade Commission report on consumer concerns.

Last year, 39 percent, or 246,000 of all complaints, involved identity theft.

At the same time, consumers and businesses seem to be trying harder to protect their credit information. The percentage of identity theft complaints involving thieves trying to open credit accounts with stolen information dropped from 24 percent in 2002 to 17 percent in 2004, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says consumers should check their credit reports from the any of the three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian or Trans Union, at least once a year to search for evidence of fraudulent transactions.

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