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ID Data Conned From Firm

ChoicePoint Case Points to Huge Fraud

By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page E01

One of the nation's biggest information services has begun warning more than 100,000 people across the country they may be targets of fraud, following disclosures the company inadvertently sold personal and financial records to fraud artists apparently involved in a massive identity theft scheme.

ChoicePoint Inc. electronically delivered thousands of reports containing names, addresses, Social Security numbers, financial information and other details to people in the Los Angeles area posing as officials in legitimate debt collection, insurance and check-cashing businesses.

Corporate headquarters of ChoicePoint, a Georgia company that was tricked into giving out personal records. (John Amis -- AP)

In Age of Security, Firm Mines Wealth Of Personal Data (The Washington Post, Jan 20, 2005)

At least 700 victims have had their mailing addresses changed, apparently by people connected to the scheme, authorities said. Identity thieves often change the addresses of victims in order to gain control of credit card offers and other mail. No one knows the extent of the fraud or the financial impact, authorities said. Only one suspect has been arrested.

Earlier this week, ChoicePoint officials said the records of about 35,000 people in California may have been disclosed. But yesterday, the company said the scope of the scheme is probably much wider than it originally reported. Company officials said they were sending out more letters to 110,000 addresses throughout the country that may be connected to the reports delivered to the fraudsters.

"We have reason to believe your personal information may have been obtained by unauthorized third parties, and we deeply regret any inconvenience this event may cause you," the letters say.

Authorities said the number of records involved may go higher as the investigation continues. "This is way far more reaching," said Los Angeles Sheriff's Department Lt. Robert Costa, commander of an identity theft unit. "I believe that when we're done it will be more than a half million nationally. It's huge."

Alpharetta, Ga.-based ChoicePoint maintains databases with billions of records about nearly every adult in America, including credit reports and criminal records. Over the past seven years, it has acquired more than 50 other information companies. Like others in the industry, the company routinely sells dossiers to police, lawyers, reporters and intelligence and homeland security officials across the Internet.

The current case, reported earlier this week by MSNBC, comes at a time when identity fraud and theft are on the rise, with as many as 10 million Americans a year falling victim to criminals who charge goods in their names or empty their bank accounts. It follows scores of other information breaches in recent years that have exposed financial, health care and other identifying information of millions of people, many of whom never discover they were put at risk.

In recent days, for instance, a group of former military and intelligence officials were told they were at risk of identity theft after thieves broke into offices of a government contractor and took computers containing the Social Security numbers and other personal information about tens of thousands of past and present company employees. Millions of financial records have been stolen by hackers from banks and credit industry companies in recent years.

Critics said retailers, credit issuers, information services and other companies have not done enough to protect the extraordinary caches of personal data collected over the past decade.

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