Identity theft: 'That's what this crime is about'

Impact on victims could be devastating

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Nov. 9, 2006, 5:00 p.m.)

Authorities allege a number of out-of-state people had their identities lifted by employees at Star Packaging in Whitewater.

Police say those suspected crimes were the cause for a long investigation into the company's owner and his business practices.

Walworth County Assistant District Attorney Diane Donohoo said at least two suspected illegal immigrants worked at the company with identities of children-a 10-year-old and a 15-year-old.

According to police reports, at least 10 immigrant employees had made-up or stolen identities. The district attorney's office is examining those employees to see if charges are warranted.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested 25 Mexican employees during a raid on the company. The business owner was arrested that same day for allegedly conspiring to commit identity theft. The latter is the case Donohoo has been assigned.

"We (the District Attorney's Office) don't care if these people are from the U.S. or not. That's not the nature of my crime," Donohoo said. "I'm not looking at the individuals' nationality. This is the use of a Social Security number of a 10-year-old in California, a 15-year-old in another state and all of these others who are having their names and identities used without permission.

"Here's a 10-year-old who is going to have to reapply for a new Social Security number and go through all this red tape. That's what this crime is about."

A growing problem

Identity theft. It's easy to do, and it's easy to become a victim, too.

"Many people do not realize how easily criminals can obtain our personal data without having to break into our homes," according to the U.S. Department of Justice Web Site.

People will "shoulder surf" in public places, watching as you enter a personal identification number into a telephone or automatic teller machine.

Some will "dumpster dive" and retrieve old checks, bank statements, credit statements, receipts, or one of a number of other documents with personal identifying information printed on them.

Internet "spam" and hackers can swipe personal information from your computer without you knowing, or trick you into giving it out.

It may be as simple as taking a cookie from a cookie jar or mail out of the mailbox. Pre-approved credit card applications are sometimes an easy way in.

These are all examples of how people can obtain the identities of another, according to the Web site.

"If we stop and think about it, there's no actual way to 100 percent conclusively prove who anybody is," said Jay Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego. "There are ways for us to go ahead and identify them to a reasonable amount of certainty," but not totally.

Basically, nobody is totally safe from a crime that is sweeping the nation.

"We're getting roughly 400 to 700 new cases each week," Foley said of his call center, which offers advice to people victimized by identity thieves.

People can take countless steps to protect their identity, but there are those unlucky few who might have their information randomly stolen. Sometimes it's by someone simply looking for a job.

Effects on victims

"You give me a basic computer and a printer, and a couple of other minor devices and I'll have a driver's license in a matter of an hour or so. It's a simple case of Photoshop," Foley said.

Foley knows a fraud investigator for the California Department of Motor Vehicles with interesting office decorations.

"He has three 40- to 50-gallon size trash bags full of phony driver's licenses that he's seized, and those are just the ones he kept for show-and-tell," Foley said.

Reproducing Social Security cards is just as easy.

According to federal laws, a Social Security card and a driver's license are two forms of acceptable ID required to obtain employment.

Employers have an obligation to verify that names on two forms of identification match and the IDs look reasonably authentic. They have no obligation to verify validity of such information.

Attorneys for Star Packaging and its owner say the company followed federal guidelines in its hiring practices.

Taking further steps to verify the identities of select employees can subject the employer to discrimination lawsuits. Furthermore, employers cannot verify someone's name and Social Security number until after they are offered a job, according to the Social Security Administration Web site.

Go to a big city and for $50, you can obtain any identity needed to become a new person, Foley said.

For victims, cutting through the red tape to get an identity back is extremely difficult.

It takes a lot of time and sometimes thousands of dollars to again prove you are who you say you are.

Foley gave an example of a 38-year-old man whose imposter created a felony record in his name. That man forfeited his credit, his rental history, his job history and his ability to obtain copies of college transcripts because he had to get a new Social Security number.

"So much for it just being a paper crime and nobody gets hurt," Foley said. "If nobody gets hurt, why have four people in the last five years committed suicide? These are people I've been working with who just couldn't handle it anymore."

Positive signs

If there is an upside to identity theft, it's that people are becoming more aware of the problem and are able to recover from their victimization faster than ever.

"There's a variety of for-profit companies that will help with your identity theft," Foley said. "The Federal Trade Commission has information that can get you started. And there's your own good sense and ability to deal with the situation."

The Identity Theft Resource Center and the Privacy Rights Clearing House, also in San Diego, are two non-profit ID theft organizations that can help.

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