Identity Safeguards Not Up to Task

Your identity might be at risk, but the government doesn't have the resources to protect it.

According to a General Accounting Office report released this week, identity theft may be the nation's fastest-growing crime, but it is hardly a law enforcement priority, despite concern that terrorists are engaging in dirty work using other people's identities, like Social Security numbers and birth dates.

"Because identity theft is still a 'nontraditional' crime, some police departments may be unaware of the importance of taking reports of identity theft, much less initiating investigations," according to the GAO report to Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas.

Departments that actually specialize in identity theft are typically underfunded and since such crime extends beyond state and local lines, "law enforcement agencies sometimes tend to view identity theft as being 'someone else's problem,"' the report found.

Identity thieves use stolen information, such as a Social Security number or birth date, to obtain credit cards, take out loans and even apply for driver's licenses and foreign visas. Victims can be left with debt or mistakenly end up with criminal records and law enforcement watch lists.

According to the Justice Department, stolen credit card numbers and identity theft affect up to 700,000 Americans each year. In 2000, credit card companies Visa and MasterCard reported fraud losses topping $1 billion. Allegations of Social Security number fraud have increased from 11,000 in 1998 to 65,000 last year.

On the books since 1998 is the federal Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, which made identity theft a separate crime against the victim and prescribed punishment from a fine to up to 15 years in prison. Since then, most states enacted laws which criminalized identity theft.

But law enforcement appears to be dropping the ball when it comes to protecting victims and going after the ID bandits. According to the report, about 35 percent of victims who contacted the Federal Trade Commission from November 1999 through October 2000 had tried and failed to file a report with local police.

That was two years ago. In response, congressional and police groups adopted a resolution in November 2000 calling for "all law enforcement agencies ... to take more positive actions in recording all incidents of identity thefts."

The numbers have improved -- in 2001, the FTC reported that 18 percent of the identity theft victims who contacted the agency last year had tried and failed to file police reports -- but there's a long way to go, say critics.

The GAO report took on 10 states with the highest incidences of reported identity theft or the longest-standing statutes against it: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

Unfortunately for the researchers, there was no centralized data on the enforcement of ID theft crimes, just anecdotal evidence that problems on the local level are abundant.

For example, a grand jury in Florida reported in January that some of the state's law enforcement agencies "are reluctant to take identity theft complaints and do not generate reports in some cases."

But it's not all about the law enforcement community's lack of interest, rather a lack of proper funding. A deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County, Calif., told investigators that that there are not enough prosecutors to handle the county's identity theft cases.

Similarly, a supervisor in the Consumer Fraud Division of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office in Illinois reported that more money was needed to train local police agencies on how to handle complex cases involving multiple victims and voluminous documents.

A chief deputy attorney in Philadelphia said that "given competing priorities and other factors, there is little incentive" for police departments in Pennsylvania to spend money on identity theft probes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.