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Bills Would Increase Penalties for Identity Fraud

March 17, 2002
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Bills Would Increase Penalties for Identity Fraud

by John Biemer, Associated Press

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) - It started with a letter from a Circuit City store in Catonsville, and "it spread like a virus."

Kevin Reigrut, who lives in Pasadena, had never shopped at the store, much less applied for credit there. But Circuit City, which misspelled his name, said they were turning down his application since they could not confirm his work address.

That prompted Reigrut, 31, to call the police about a possible case of identity theft. About a month later, he found out how extreme it was.

Reigrut got a call on his unlisted cell phone from a leasing business in New Jersey. They indicated that a company - of which Reigrut was supposedly president - was entering into a leasing agreement on $60,000 in computer equipment. Detectives tracking Reigrut's case later found someone had used his identity to open a bank account and a post office box.

"It was a systematic car-jacking of my entire identity," Reigrut said.

There's nothing new about identity theft. But it's becoming one of the fastest-growing crimes in the nation thanks in part to the advance of technology - particularly the Internet.

Personal identifying information that can be stolen ranges from your name, address and telephone number, to driver's license numbers, Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, personal identification numbers and credit card numbers.

The Federal Trade Commission identified 69,370 victims of the crime nationwide from the time it first began collecting the information in November 1999 until June 2001. Many more identity theft crimes go unreported.

Almost half the reported crimes involved credit card fraud, costing credit card companies up to a billion dollars a year.

Some of the information is obtained fraudulently, some legally. Companies hold huge databases of personal information, and there are few laws that restrict the sale of that information from company to company. In Internet chat rooms, credit and calling card numbers are traded like currency.

"The interconnectivity of people is absolutely the driving force here and the ability to do transactions anonymously," said Pat Roddy, assistant county attorney for Baltimore County.

Maryland is one of the top five states in per capita identity theft complaints, along with California, Nevada, New York and Oregon, according to the FTC. In Baltimore County alone, there was one case reported in 1999. In 2001, there were 406.

As a detective in the Montgomery County police department's auto theft unit, Tom Reich says he's investigated dozens of cases where thieves used stolen identities to buy cars. That includes a case last year when a Baltimore man used a dead man's Social Security number to get an online loan and buy a $53,000 BMW sport utility vehicle at a Rockville dealership.

Sophisticated computers, image scanners and high-quality printers have made it possible for almost anyone to fabricate important documents, Reich said.

"If you own a Maryland driver's license and scan it in, you can change everything that you want," he said. "You print it up on a good color printer and it'd be tough to figure it out. You get the right laminate, and away you go."

It may take the dealerships months to figure out the purchase was a fraud, Reich said.

Currently, using someone else's identity in Maryland is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 or up to a year in prison. Two bills before committees in the General Assembly would change that.

The proposed legislation would raise penalties for someone intending to distribute personal identifying information without the individual's consent to a felony status - punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Someone who uses another person's identifying information to get a benefit of more than $500 could also be sent to prison for up 15 years.

The proposed legislation also extends the current law to make it illegal to possess personal identifying information with the intent to distribute it. As of now, you have to prove it was fraudulently obtained. That can be difficult because some people come across the information legally - in workplace databases and on job and housing applications.

It also expands police authority to operate without regard to jurisdictions. This would help address a common and potentially confusing problem with identity theft, because the victim, the criminal and the crime are often in different places - even in different states.

The proposed legislation is wrapped into a series of anti-terrorism measures inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks. Some of the hijackers fraudulently obtained driver's licenses in other states.

Reigrut, who's the chief of staff in the office of Sen. Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, said he used his government experience to navigate the system and fight off every negative mark on his credit history. But he can't measure the amount of time he's spent on the problem.

The FTC says it costs the average victim more than $1,000 to clean up a mess left by an identity thief.

Whoever did it to Reigrut is still at large. Reigrut's not certain how it happened - but he suspects it started when he allowed a business to make a photocopy of his driver's license.

"When you find out someone is trying to use your name fraudulently, you want to do anything and everything you can to protect yourself," he said.

To minimize the chances of it happening again - in any way - Reigrut's bought two paper shredders. He now also refuses to allow his license to be photocopied.

"This may be one of those prices of being in the Internet age, but it's certainly not a price worth paying," he said. "It's horrifying."

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