Protecting your good name

Three men are arrested in New York in an investigation of a fast-growing crime called identity theft. Credit information on about 30,000 people was stolen and used to drain victims' bank accounts and ruin their credit.

"Every American's worst financial nightmare," says Federal prosecutor James Comey. On a much larger scale, a database has been invaded containing the names and Social Security numbers of 500,000 military personnel and their dependents. The data was lodged in the computer equipment of a company managing a health-care program for the Pentagon in 16 states. A $100,000 reward has been offered for information on the identity of these identity burglars who, at this writing, have not used the files to obtain credit.

The Los Angeles Times says that last spring a computer hacker breached a data center containing information on about 265,000 California state employees. The Federal Trade Commission says identity theft is the largest single consumer fraud complaint.

Stealing credit is not the only motive for identity theft. Since Sept. 11, US law-enforcement agencies and the immigration service have been preoccupied with document mills clever at forging passports with cleverly stolen photographs. Modern technology makes possible state-of-the-art counterfeiting of passports and the manufacturing of ink stamps like those used by consular officials.

The FBI distributed pictures of five men believed to have entered the US with fake IDs. In Lahore, Pakistan, a man recognized one as a picture of himself and said it was apparently stolen by someone who had once forged a passport for him and kept a copy of the picture to be used for some other forgery customer.

In the Pentagon, a research organization is preoccupied with a project called Total Information Awareness - complete computerized records of the identity of persons who may someday turn up as terrorism suspects.

Never before have Americans been so concerned with and so worried about identity. The phrase "identity crisis" has acquired a new meaning.

Americans long have prized their privacy, and for that reason have resisted the introduction of a national identity card, something which is commonplace in Europe.

For Americans, their real "identity card" is a series of Social Security and credit card numbers ripe for the hacking. Iago in Shakespeare's "Othello" says, "He that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor, indeed."

But today, thanks to computer wizardry and modern forgery skills, your good name may well bring enrichment to him that filches it, leaving you poor in name and in fact.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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