Protecting identities

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

If the punishment should fit the crime, why is it that victims of identity theft are more likely to feel penalized the most?

Though the victims aren't responsible for the monetary and credit damage accumulated with their stolen identity, they still receive the constant calls from creditors and have to rebuild their good name, which can take years.

Identity theft costs billions nationwide and leaves banks, credit card companies and businesses with extensive bills. Consumers lost $5 billion while businesses and financial institutions lost nearly $48 billion in 2002 as a result of identity theft, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission.

The Missouri Legislature wants to stiffen the punishment for identity theft crimes.

A bill passed by legislators a week ago would make it a crime to falsely use identification belonging to another person -- and that would include Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, bank account information, computer passwords, birth certificates and fingerprints. The bill now awaits the governor's signature.

While the legislation would not prevent anyone from obtaining another's identity, which can be done far too easily on the Internet, it would tie the level of criminal charge to the value of money or property stolen with the information. Losses above $500 would be considered a felony. The felony charges would be made on an escalating scale so that a theft of $100,000 or more would be punishable by 10 to 30 years or life in prison.

Area prosecuting attorneys say existing laws allow them to present felony charges for identity theft, but the specific statute could be an additional tool to use.

A minor using another's identification to purchase alcohol or cigarettes or to enter a casino is excluded from this bill.

The legislature has taken the right steps in creating a bill that would make the penalties for identity theft tougher. Identity theft continues to be a serious crime not just in Missouri but nationwide.

This legislation is a step toward making sure identity thieves are punished as harshly as their victims.

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