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Identity Theft

Remarks by Susan Herman, Executive Director, National Center for Victims of Crime, at the National Summit on Identity Theft, Washington, DC.

March 15, 2000

The Extent of the Crime

Anyone can be a victim of identity theft. Identifying information, such as your address, phone number, date of birth and social security number, is captured whenever you call an 800 number, use a credit card, send in a product registration card, subscribe to a magazine, make a charitable donation, or use a grocery store buyer's club card. People intent on stealing information can find your account numbers and passwords in your garbage, or by listening in on your cordless or cell phone conversations. In short, in contemporary life, each of us leaves an information trail everywhere we go.

The Impact of the Crime

We have just heard Secretary Summers describe the enormous reach of identity theft. In our session this morning, we will hear from victims who have first hand experience.

The most frightening part of identity theft is that it can happen without your even knowing it-- and once you find out, it can be too late. Your financial security can be shattered. Even if you can limit your financial losses, it can take countless hours of work, over several years, to repair the damage to your credit rating and to restore your good name. Credit reporting agencies can be slow to change the credit record; fraudulent charges can reappear over and over on your account or credit report; and bill collectors can turn up at your door to collect wrongfully incurred debt.

Furthermore, victims who obtain a criminal record through the misuse of their identity have a particularly difficult time clearing their names, as police records can be extremely hard to change.

As a result, many victims become hyper-vigilant, unable to trust the billing staff at their doctor's office, or the department store clerk, or the secretary at their child's school, or even family or coworkers. Anyone can misuse personal information and often victims don't know who actually did.

Identity Theft and Public Policy

Currently, victims of identity theft are marginalized, essentially left struggling on their own to restore their good name and credit. Because widespread identity theft is relatively new, and certainly newly prominent, neither law enforcement nor victim service providers have yet developed adequate responses.

Until recently, the only official "victim" in many cases of identity theft was the defrauded merchant or credit agency. Today, about half of the states have defined a separate crime of "identity theft," making it clear that a person whose identity is stolen, including victims of credit card fraud, is also a victim in the eyes of the law. Even in those states though, many law enforcement officers haven't caught up with the law. Individual victims are routinely mistakenly informed that only the financial institution or commercial entity is the real "victim."

To make matters worse, victims are often told that the police can't take a report until they know where the crime was committed. Identity theft can be committed in person, over the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet. It is often impossible to pinpoint exactly when the victim's personal information was obtained, so the actual location of the crime is rarely known. While many states allow the victims' residence to serve as the location of the crime, front-line officers frequently remain unaware of such provisions.

Even when police do take reports, relatively few cases of identity theft are solved. According to the San Diego Police Department, in 1999 there were 783 cases of identity theft reported. Only 50 resulted in an arrest. The Los Angeles Police Department received more than 3,000 reports of identity theft in 1999, but its Financial Crimes Division only solved about one percent of these cases.

And, even when there is an arrest, victims of identity theft are usually excluded from the criminal justice process. Identity theft victims, like all other crime victims, have a great interest in knowing the progress of their case. They want to participate when appropriate. Yet they often have none of the standard victims' rights to be kept informed or to participate, because those rights are too often limited to victims of violent crime.

Identity Theft and Victim Services

Moreover, we in the victim service field have lagged behind in developing appropriate responses to identity theft victims. Currently, few victim services are available. While the National Center has a referral database of thousands of community-based organizations serving victims of crime, we only know of a handful of agencies that serve victims of identity theft. Some of these organizations simply take reports. A very few offer to intervene with credit agencies on behalf of victims, and some serve solely as information clearinghouses.

When people want more information about how to prevent and recover from identity theft, there are a few national organizations we can refer them to. But if someone needs more support or advocacy--either to a credit agency or to the criminal justice system--and they often do--they usually come back to us.

I'd like all of you to know that we are a resource for you. Please call us if you need help handling identity theft or any other issue concerning victims of crime. And please, when you encounter victims of identity theft who need services, give them our 800 number: 1-800-FYI-CALL, because victims often need more than information--they need advocacy.

We also educate the public about identity theft. Today, each of you will be given a copy of our new identity theft poster. Copy it. Distribute it. If you'd like us to design one for your agency or business, we'd be happy to work with you.

Now, as we begin this national summit, it is appropriate that you hear from victims of identity theft, as we do. Victims' stories must always inform our work. As we spend the next two days crafting solutions to this horrible crime of contemporary life, we must remember every crime has a victim, and every victim needs our help.

Joining me today:

From Ohio, we'll hear from Darlene Zele who will tell us the personal hell she experienced as the result of identity theft.

From Maryland, Col. John Stevens, Jr. For over two years, John and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, have struggled to eliminate their enormous credit problems created as a direct result of identity theft in March 1997.

Finally, Jim Estepp, Member of the County Council from Prince George's County, Maryland, will tell us about the legislation he sponsored which became one of the nation's first local laws protecting victims of identity theft.

After these presentations, I hope we have time for questions. Let's begin with Col. Stevens.