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Identity Issues
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. 2/14/08

We are bombarded today with warnings regarding the risks and dangers of identity theft, or having one’s personal data stolen or used illegally to establish credit or wrongfully gain access to one’s financial assets. Identity theft is on the rise, we are told, and an increasing percentage of Americans are falling victim to it. Trouble is, the warnings are not accompanied by much in the way of useful advice on how to prevent it and almost no effective action on the part of government, financial institutions and other businesses to stop this epidemic.

 Most of the advice is simplistic. Safeguard your passwords, account numbers and other personal data. Duh! Don’t give out your social security number. Double duh! Use a locked mailbox or a post office box. Check your credit reports (all three) quarterly (or even monthly if you are a bit paranoid). Sign up for identity theft “protection.” Don’t carry your social security card. Shred every piece of mail containing any personal data, including even just your name and address. Safeguard your trash.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

Following this advice to the letter would be a full-time job and, for most busy Americans, impractical. I’ve heard several presentations by “experts” on the subject of identity theft. But the speakers are largely expert in dealing with the problem after it has happened, not in effectively preventing it in the first place. One deputy district attorney who specializes in this crime advises people to shred every piece of mail including envelopes containing names and addresses. Is he serious? It would require an industrial strength shredder to grind up the stack of junk mail that overflows the mailboxes of most American households every day. And most mailboxes of the locking variety aren’t large enough to hold it all. Moreover, names and address are easily accessible to the public through multiple sources. So why bother shredding envelopes and all those glossy cardboard mailers that defy most household shredders?

 The “expert” was insistent. Because, he said, every small piece of data can be put together by a shrewd thief in order to gain access to your accounts or steal identity. I asked him if he shredded all his mail including envelopes (wondering if, perhaps, he just hauled it all to work and used one of the peoples’ industrial strength shredders). He said that he and his wife held weekly shredding parties at home every Saturday morning. It occurred to me that that here was a couple that really should take up a hobby like golf or bird-watching or anything more stimulating than shredding a stack of paper on Saturday mornings. I asked what the government was doing about this serious problem that was causing financial ruin and stress for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans.

The answer is, sadly, not much beyond the aforementioned advice. If identity thieves are even caught, they may be sentenced to nothing more than a few years in prison, maybe less. But the damage is already done, in most cases. Restitution is problematic. Often, financing a drug or gambling habit is involved. Identity protection plans such as offered by banks may generate income for the banks but mostly serve to alert the subscriber that something bad has already happened.

With illegal immigration still largely out of control, forged documentation is a still a booming business. Social Security numbers, some stolen, some randomly generated, are used to create identity documents, open accounts and gain credit at some unsuspecting citizen’s expense. The federal government is simply failing to adequately protected its legal citizens while falling over backwards to protect the rights of illegals.

There are steps that can and should be taken now. First, a national, tamper-proof, smart identity card must be developed and required to obtain credit or to access government-provided services. Second, organizations, both private and public, that fail to provide effective (note the adjective is “effective”, not just “reasonable”) protection for personal data will be subject to severe, mandatory penalties. Third, financial institutions and other providers of credit must be prevented from distributing unsolicited, pre-approved credit card applications. Fourth, anyone in this country illegally with false identification should be imprisoned, not deported, and held there without bail until any identity fraud issues have been investigated and resolved.

In summary, it isn’t enough for the government to warn us about the perils of identity theft. It must actually do something about the thefts themselves. CRO

copyright 2008 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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