Each year, according to the FBI, some 350,000 cases of "identity theft" occur, making it one of the fastest growing crimes in the US.
In a society where numbers all too often become a substitute for names, identity thieves - sometimes working on the Internet, sometimes just filtering through trash - can pilfer those numbers and use them to commit crimes.
Reintroduced privacy legislation on Capitol Hill takes aim at this problem. The bill has been reworked to address the concerns of banks and direct marketers, who felt earlier drafts of the measure were too restrictive on the use of customer ID data. But it also addresses the desires of citizens to keep their privacy intact.
For example, the Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2001 requires banks issuing credit, as well as credit bureaus, to take added steps to make sure the information they have on existing and potential customers is accurate.
The legislation also prohibits new credit card verification machines from printing an entire credit card number or a card's expiration date on receipts, and mandates that existing machines comply with these new standards by 2006.
Because the process of reclaiming a stolen identity can sometimes take months or years, the bill demands speedier paperwork to help restore an individual's identity and accurate credit history following a theft.
Most significantly, though, this legislation sets up clear "opt-in" and "opt-out" requirements. Consumers would have to directly consent before companies could sell highly sensitive personal data to third parties - Social Security numbers and financial and health data, for example.
Since Social Security numbers are often used as passwords for bank accounts, they're much sought by ID thieves.
Businesses would also be required to give individuals a choice to opt out of routine sharing of "nonsensitive" personal information, such as addresses.
Hopefully, this bill won't get lost in the shuffle of legislation pending this fall. Meanwhile, consumers interested in protecting their identities and their credit can gain useful information from the Federal Trade Commission's website: www.consumer.gov/idtheft.