Face Lifting

How our legislators are tackling identity theft, one of the fastest-growing crimes in Texas.

What is identity theft, anyway? The act of an impostor stealing your Social Security, credit card, or driver’s license number or any other key component of your personal information and using it to obtain credit or purchase goods under your name. In a mild case, someone might simply steal one of your checks and find a way to cash it; in an extreme case, the kind that has sales of home document shredders booming, someone could use the information you nonchalantly tossed into your trash to open up multiple credit card accounts, rack up an enormous debt, destroy your credit, and then get arrested—the latter while holding a fake ID in your name, leaving you know who with a police record.

How often does this kind of thing happen in Texas?  There were some 26,000 reported victims here in 2004—second only to California—which roughly translates to one identity stolen in Texas every half hour. But given that identity thieves are getting increasingly sophisticated and that the Federal Trade Commission estimates that at least 10 million cases of identity theft take place nationwide every year, most experts agree that the real number is much higher than that. These days thieves can steal thousands of identities at one time.

How’s that? “The fundamental problem,” says Luke Metzger, of the Texas Public Interest Research Group, “is that the thousands of institutions in possession of our private information aren’t taking the necessary steps to protect us.” For example, last year a crime ring that set up fraudulent businesses gained access to information on more than 140,000 Americans stored in the databases of ChoicePoint, a company that sells private consumer data. That scandal affected at least 11,000 Texans alone. In 2003 a hacker stole some 55,000 Social Security numbers from the University of Texas computer system in one afternoon. And in another common scenario, dumpster divers in Ennis recently obtained credit information on hundreds of consumers that was discarded in a trash bin by local Blockbuster employees.

So is anything being done to crack down on this? Yes, and it certainly helps that the Legislature now has a face to put on the issue: Helen Giddings, who last year had about $40,000 charged to her bank account when thieves swiped a delivery of blank checks and cashed them illegally. The De Soto identity theft victim is also known as Democratic state representative Helen Giddings, the chair of the powerful House Business and Industry Committee. Fresh from the publicity surrounding her case, Giddings and a handful of other members of the Legislature have introduced more than a dozen anti—identity theft bills this session.

Such as? For starters, Giddings has introduced a bill that makes sure companies can’t deliver blank checks to an unattended address without the customer’s consent, which, she says, “is exactly what happened to me.” Then there’s a bill that would prevent businesses from unnecessarily forcing consumers to provide their Social Security numbers; one that requires businesses to immediately report a security breach involving consumer information; and one that requires businesses—cough, Blockbuster, cough, cough—to properly destroy documents containing private financial information.

Will these measures take care of the problem? They’ll certainly put a dent in the issue here in Texas. But curbing the large-scale abuse may require the federal government to take on giant data warehousers such as ChoicePoint. “Under current law, these companies have a legal right to package information and do almost anything they want with it,” says Ennis-based GOP representative Joe Barton, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on his Web site . “I personally see no socially redeeming value in anyone having the right to give away and sell my personal information.” His statement has the data brokers fearing regulation, and since nothing wakes up the K Street business lobby like the dreaded R word, expect a bloody battle before real progress is made.

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