Protecting Identity

The size of the "identity theft" problem may be debatable. What's not debatable is the relative ease with which con artists can pilfer personal information.

Privacy groups estimate as many as 700,000 cases yearly. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) confirmed 25,000 cases last year, but it gets complaints and queries at the rate of some 3,000 a week.

The old methods of theft, such as digging bank account or credit card numbers out of the trash, are still employed. But the Internet has opened new avenues for identity thieves. Notable among them: using stolen credit card numbers to buy extensive personal ID information from commercial online data brokers.

These brokers, legitimate businesses, compile their information from various sources, including public records (also increasingly online). Among the items they typically provide are Social Security numbers. For ID thieves, those numbers can be virtual skeleton keys. John Huse, the Social Security Administration's inspector general, has called the fraudulent use of Social Security numbers "a national crisis."

This problem requires constant and increasing vigilance. In 1998, Congress made it a federal crime to take the identity of someone else. Congress also outlawed so-called "pretext calling," by which data brokers obtain personal information from individuals under false pretenses. The FTC is demanding that companies, such as banks, that buy from data brokers be more aware of how such data is gathered.

New legislation before Congress this year would strengthen loophole-ridden current laws against the sale of Social Security numbers.

These regulatory and legislative steps are important. They can help create an environment in which identity theft is less likely. Also critical, of course, is a public alert to safeguarding personal information.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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