IDENTITY THEFT : A Crime of Modern Times

Article excerpt

Sunil Dutta is a sergeant with the Los Angeles Police Department.

As soon as police officers learn of an armed robbery or burglary in progress on the radio, their adrenaline starts pumping and they speed to the location, willing to put their lives in peril trying to catch a dangerous criminal. This zeal to respond is commendable and every year saves countless people from harm. The penalties for violent crimes are severe. If you are held up at gunpoint and deprived of a twenty-dollar bill, the perpetrator could serve ten years in a state prison.

The plus side of opportunistic thefts is that such crimes are over in an instant. A bank robber rarely takes more than two minutes to complete his mission; burglars like to strike with no one around and escape in the cover of darkness.

Unfortunately, the crime of the century is turning out to be one in which almost all the perpetrators get away scot-free after stealing identities, robbing their victims of tens of thousands of dollars (in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars), and devastating their lives for years. There is no emergency response to catch these criminals! Police and the criminal justice system until recently have shown little enthusiasm for tracking this crime and going after the perpetrators. Identity theft has turned into an extremely lucrative crime, and its impact on victims is horrendous. Victims are given the runaround by credit agencies, banks, mortgage companies, and businesses; police do not seem to be very helpful. Collection agencies hound victims to collect for purchases that were not made; as a result of their bad credit records, their loan applications are denied, they cannot rent apartments, and they cannot get jobs.

In commonly encountered crimes, the victim makes a police report and detectives conduct their investigation to find the perpetrator. Once the criminal is found, district attorneys file charges, the case goes to trial, and the judge metes out punishment. Unfortunately, in the case of identity theft, the victim is treated like a criminal by most agents in the criminal justice system for months, until the victim can prove that he is the victim of a crime. The average victim spends 175 hours and $808 in out-of-pocket expenses in clearing his name. Welcome to the twenty-first century and the crime of modern times.

Identity theft occurs when someone steals your name and important information about you, including your Social Security number, credit card numbers, or your passwords and personal identification numbers (PIN) to make ATM withdrawals, shop on the Internet, gain access to your bank accounts, obtain loans and credit cards under your name, make unauthorized purchases, and open utility accounts. Often the criminal has run up forty to fifty thousand dollars in purchases before the victim even finds out that his identity has been stolen. Most people find out that they have been victims of identity theft months later, after their credit history has been destroyed.

EMERGING CRIME OF THE INFORMATION AGE

Identity theft has skyrocketed in the last few years. According to recent FBI statistics, identity theft is the fastest growing white-collar crime in the United States. An estimated 500,000 to 750,000 Americans were victims of identity theft in 2001, which cost over $3 billion. These numbers don't reveal the true severity of the crime, as identity theft is vastly underreported. Identity theft has the potential to cause enormous damage to individuals as well as the national economy, eclipsing the effects of conventional crimes. No one is immune from this crime.

Although identity theft can wipe out someone's credit record for years, that is not the only way a victim suffers. Harrowing examples abound. For more than twelve years, a Florida suspect assumed and lived under the identity of a California victim, who had lost his wallet containing his driver's license and other personal information while vacationing in Daytona Beach in 1987. …