Monday, April 5, 2010

ID theft recovery remains struggle

Financial losses aren't worst of problems for many victims By Clay Carey • THE TENNESSEAN • April 5, 2010 It's been nearly 20 years since John Webb found out his identity had been stolen, a revelation that led to hours on the phone with credit card companies, banks and government agencies. Today, Webb helps prosecute identity thieves, who are growing in number and advancing technologically, targeting everyone from senior citizens to large law firms. "It's the fastest-growing crime in the country in terms of volume," said Webb, an assistant U.S. attorney in Nashville. "It's something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy." Though the legal system is adapting, going after identity thieves still is a challenge, experts say. Identity theft is difficult to prosecute because it often goes undetected for months or years, and culprits are hard to track down. And it's still difficult for victims to go after the hackers' money in civil court. Outdated case law and statutes that don't address modern technology are part of the problem, attorneys say. "The monetary loss is usually the least of the victim's problem," Webb said. "Really, the difficult part of it is that, most of the time, you don't know where that breach is. "It's the victimization that keeps on giving every time you get a call from a collection agency, every time you have to write a letter to a credit agency saying, 'That's not me.' " About 5,000 Tennesseans reported being victims of identity theft in 2008, up 24 percent from the previous year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. For every 100,000 Tennessee residents, there were 80 identity theft victims that year, according to the FTC. Nationwide, reported cases of identity theft are rising by 3 percent to 5 percent every year. Congress created the country's first federal identity theft laws in 1998. Six years ago, a new federal law was approved that specifically punishes people who knowingly have another person's identity. There also have been several cybercrime and wire fraud laws put into place over the past decade. Still, it can be difficult for state laws to keep pace with electronic identity theft's constant evolution, said Pam Greenberg, who tracks technology and Internet issues for the National Council of State Legislatures "It's always a game of keeping one step ahead of whatever new scheme is created," Greenberg said. Tennessee and 21 other states have passed laws that specifically target phishing — when hackers send out e-mails that appear to be from banks or credit card companies in an effort to trick others into giving up valuable personal information. Fifteen states have laws against spyware, computer programs that collect information from people's computers without their knowledge. Tennessee is not among them. Last year, the state criminalized stealing identities in order to get jobs. State Rep. Joe Carr, who sponsored the legislation in the House, said the law was aimed at illegal immigrants who were forging IDs to get work. "What we've got to figure out is how we can get a step ahead of criminals, and not stay a step behind,'' said Carr, R-Lascassas. Money is gone for good Sgt. David Howard with the Metro Police Department's fraud division said cleaning up identity theft can take a victim up to 700 hours of phone calls, affidavits and paperwork. If money has been taken, there's usually no way to get it back, he said. Last month, a Nashville man filed a federal civil lawsuit against an unknown person who went into his e-mail account, snooping through financial and medical records. He has asked a federal judge to award him at least $1,000 for every piece of personal information the hacker took, once that person is identified. At issue in his case is the fact that, though he knows his information was compromised, the man hasn't seen it used in a nefarious way. "You are inferring that things could possibly happen without proving they have," said Linda Foley, founder of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. "It's like trying to get restitution for someone slashing your face before the person has actually attacked you," Foley said. "Judges are used to cases where you can see blood and bruises and wounds. "He may have to be happy with the fact that he didn't win, but he started some legal discussions and opened the door for someone else," Foley said.

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