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Identity crisis: Theft of private data grows
Sacramento Bee


June 16, 2005

We have learned to lock the doors of our homes to protect our property. To memorize secret passwords to guard our bank accounts. To submit to searches in airports to defend our collective safety.

But when it comes to one of our most precious assets - our unique identities - good luck to anyone trying to safeguard a name, address, birth date, or Social Security number.

Once a fairly infrequent occurrence, assaults on identities are coming now in waves, and from all corners:

Thugs are raiding mailboxes for personal information, and turning Starbucks gift cards into fake IDs. Unscrupulous employees are stealing private data about their colleagues, then going on shopping sprees. White-collar criminals are running sophisticated identity theft rings, sometimes global in scope.

And businesses, universities and government agencies increasingly are reporting major data breaches after neglecting to adequately secure personal data files entrusted to their care.

In the latest breach, announced last week, CitiFinancial, a unit of Citigroup, reported it had lost in shipment a box of computer tapes with private account information for 3.9 million customers.

According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, the CitiFinancial loss was the 40th major data breach reported in the past four months. It pushed the number of individuals whose personal information has been compromised during that time to more than 9.5 million.

Consumer advocates are furious about all the data on the loose. Although most of the breaches have not resulted in individuals being victimized, the potential for criminal activity is vast.

"This has reached an epidemic level," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. "What we're seeing here is a very leaky boat. Companies with sensitive personal data are not doing even the basics to protect the information."

The high-level corporate breaches are just one slice of trouble on the ever-expanding spectrum of identity theft.

Police detectives, district attorneys and others who protect the public are reporting a disturbing upswing in existing criminals turning to identity theft.

The buzz among the bad guys: Most identity theft cases never get resolved. And for those who do get caught, the crime doesn't count as a strike under California's tough "three-strikes" sentencing law, and sentences tend to be light.

In many cases, criminals in prison are teaching one another how to use the Internet, manipulate personal data and create counterfeit checks and driver's licenses, law enforcement experts said. Prison rehabilitation programs that emphasize computers are further reinforcing their skills, said Detective Jim Hudson of the Placer County, Calif., Sheriff's Department. Increasingly, drug dealers and users are being drawn to the crime to finance their habits, he added.

"There's very low risk with identity theft compared with robbing a bank," Hudson said. "You don't have to use a gun and you don't risk a long prison term."

In a complicating trend, criminals are banding together, sharing stolen personal information and counterfeit techniques across state lines, and creating vast webs of victims.

Over the past two months, for example, Hudson and other investigators have worked to break up a complex identity theft and forgery ring that involved dozens of victims and numerous banks and merchants.

In late April, Placer County detectives arrested three alleged participants in the ring and charged them with an assortment of crimes including forgery, mail theft, and identity theft. One pleaded guilty and was placed on probation in a drug rehabilitation program, while the other two are in Placer County jail awaiting criminal proceedings.

Six weeks later, on June 4, after more stakeouts and investigation, detectives arrested three more alleged participants. They are in jail awaiting proceedings on identity theft-related charges, Hudson said.

According to Hudson, the highly organized crime ring had different jobs for different members. Several broke into cars and mailboxes to steal personal identifying information. Two others printed up counterfeit checks and driver's licenses using laptop computers, laminating machines and Starbucks gift cards, he said.

Still others worked as "shoppers," using the phony IDs and counterfeit checks to purchase everything from food to small electronics to underwear.

Some people in the ring were paid in cash, some in drugs, some in purchased goods. "It's a huge barter network," Hudson said.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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