We make it way too easy for those who steal identities

We make it way too easy for those who steal identities
We make it way too easy for those who steal identities 

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 
Corsair 36.

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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