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Identity Theft

by Laura Forlano, Apr 15, 2004
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Last year, some 53 million Americans filed their taxes from the comfort and convenience of a personal computer. This year, more are expected to do so. (See Tech Links in the News for the Web sites to file for federal and state taxes, and to file for an extension.) Clearly, the computer-savvy are less worried about transmitting personal information over the Internet.

But in fact, while there are precautions to take when filing taxes – experts recommend the use of a personal computer used only by the tax filer – there is an increasing problem of cyber-crime, and nowhere more than in New York.

This month, Howard Carmack was found guilty of sending over 800 million spam messages from e-mail accounts that he opened under the names of two unsuspecting upstate New York residents.

This is the first case of identity theft -- a crime under New York State law since October 2002--prosecuted by the state Attorney General’s office. New York was one of the last states in the country to enact such legislation. "The guilty verdict shows that those engaged in identity theft and cyber-crime will be discovered, prosecuted, and convicted of their crimes," said Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.

Identity theft is “crime in which someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person’s personal data in some way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. These crimes include fraud involving credit cards, telephones, utilities, banks and loans.

Currently, identity theft is a serious problem in New York City. In 2001, New York had the highest number of identity theft victims nationwide. Nationwide, there were over 160,000 victims of identity theft in 2002 according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission. In 2003, the city had almost 9,000 acts of identity theft as compared to Rochester (355), Buffalo (208), Yonkers (147) and Syracuse (91).

While the increased use of computers to store sensitive information is one reason for the rise in identity theft, often criminals steal paper records to get access to personal information. With only someone’s name, date of birth, social security number or credit card number, an identity thief can cause substantial financial damage. In January 2004, New York State passed a law requiring businesses to remove the expiration date and print only the last five digits of credit cards from receipts.

Credit card fraud is the most common type of identity theft. In recent years, criminals have attacked computer systems and used hand-held technology to steal personal information from Automated Teller Machines, a practice called “skimming.” For example, last December three men stole $225,000 from 300 cardholders by stealing personal information from an ATM in a Manhattan candy store.

Currently, the City Council Committee on Consumer Affairs has three bills under consideration aimed at protecting and informing consumers about identity theft. These bills make businesses and the government responsible for protecting sensitive personal information. The first would allow the commissioner of the Department of Consumer Affairs to suspend, revoke or refuse to renew business licenses if the business has violated New York State identity theft law two or more times. The other two proposed laws require city agencies and businesses licensed by the Department of Consumer Affairs to inform citizens when there has been a security breach of their personal information.

At a time when more--not less--personal information is being collected and stored in government and private sector computer databases, it is vital that New York City agencies and businesses be penalized if they are not able to guarantee the security of such information. Moreover, since New York State has been slow in implementing such legislation, it is important that the city move quickly to pass identity theft legislation to stop the high rates of the crime in New York City.

However, in the end, citizens—not governments and businesses--should be the true owners of their personal information and identities. Ken Jordan, an independent writer and digital media consultant, has collaborated with technologists and activists to develop an innovative proposal on how to best give citizens control of their personal information. It envisions a system of “online citizenship” that will not only curtain identity theft but also allow New Yorkers to participate more effectively in decision-making on local issues faced by the city.

Laura Forlano is a doctoral student studying communication technology policy at Columbia University.

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