By Jim Boren
The Fresno Bee
No wonder identity theft is the fastest-growing crime. Our common sense
hasn't caught up with our technology.
We let anyone have our Social Security and driver's license numbers. We
might as well leave our wallets on a store counter and walk away. A
thief with a computer can quickly empty our bank accounts.
The bad guys consider our personal information better than cash. They
can only spend cash once, but with our personal information, they can
create false identities to open credit card and checking accounts.
The next thing you know, they're buying boats in your name and you don't
know it until the repo guy is at your door looking for the Chris Craft
I once interviewed a Sherman Oaks woman who didn't know her identity had
been stolen until she was called by a collection agency demanding money
on an unpaid cell phone bill. In a panic, she got a copy of her credit
report and found out that more than than $300,000 in fraudulent charges
had been made in her name.
Her life has been a nightmare since as she has tried to straighten out
her credit report. Now few believe that she's the victim, and most call
her a deadbeat.
But even if consumers don't make their information easily available to
ID thieves, someone else might. Fresno County bureaucrats have been
helping out the bad guys with their inept handling of personal
information, and it seems the Board of Supervisors doesn't have a clue
there's a problem.
First, the county lost a computer disk with personal information from
thousands of home health-care workers. Then hundreds of birth
certificate applications with parents' information went missing.
In February, a laptop computer was stolen from a county office. The
computer belonged to Supportive Services Inc., a nonprofit agency, and
contained information on thousands of CalWORKs clients.
County officials say they have adequate safeguards for protecting
personal information. Hardly. I wonder if they even understand their
complicity in identity theft? Maybe they just don't want to admit
liability because of the mess they'd created for people.
You have to wonder why anyone would be dumb enough to put all that
information on a laptop computer that can be easily stolen. It happens
all over the country.
Don't forget the 2006 incident in which 26.5 million veterans were put
at risk after a burglary at the Maryland home of a Veterans
Administration official. A stolen laptop and hard drive contained the
names, birth dates and Social Security numbers of veterans.
This wasn't a few hundred people affected. It was millions, and those in
charge merely shrugged their shoulders. You want to grab them and say,
"Don't put all that information on a laptop that can be stolen."
No wonder Fresno County supervisorial candidate Debbie Poochigian
refused to give the Greater Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce her personal
information during the chamber's recent endorsement process. Chamber
officials may say they'll protect that information, but a burglary at
their office could make them all look foolish.
Poochigian should know a little bit about identity theft. Her husband,
former state Sen. Chuck Poochigian, was one of the Legislature's top
experts on the issue. During his tenure, he pushed to have state laws
keep up with this developing crime.
The controversy over the chamber's practice was reported in the
newspaper the same day that Fresno police busted a ring in which a woman
and her accomplices may be responsible for 500 ID theft cases, causing
several hundred thousand dollars in losses.
This case highlights the big problem with this crime: The information
thieves need is available everywhere they look. They got personal
information in burglaries, snatched it from mailboxes, rifled through
garbage bins and broke into vehicles.
The chamber controversy involving Poochigian and the big ID theft bust
Wednesday could help raise the profile of this crime. But as long as
businesses, individuals and government are careless with personal
information, the thieves will happily use it.
I'm angry that the Legislature had coddled these thieves. The Democratic
majority blocked Chuck Poochigian's efforts, including not increasing
penalties for criminals who steal financial information.
What we're doing now isn't working. It's time to substantially increase
jail time for ID thieves. It might even be worth looking at whether the
state needs a "Three Strikes" law for identity theft. Get convicted of
ID theft three times and you go away for life. Now that would get the
attention of those who rob you with their computers.
Jim Boren is The Fresno Bee's editorial page editor.
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