The Federal Trade Commission reported last week that complaints about identity theft nearly doubled in 2002, topping its consumer frauds list for the third consecutive year. And the District now leads the nation in those complaints per capita.
But if the huge response from readers to the prevention checklist in the Jan. 7 column ("Identity Theft: It Pays to Be Diligent") is an indication, the findings won't surprise consumers. They say they're fed up with the lack of protections on their private information.
Joe Manes wanted to know why the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles uses Social Security numbers as driver's license numbers when we're supposed to keep our SSNs close to the vest?
"The commercial use of the SSN is pervasive in our lives," says the Capitol Hill resident.
A Virginia reader pointed out that several of her IDs use her SSN, including her driver's license and Medicare card. She wonders why.
In fact, because of identity thievery linked to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, most states now have either stopped issuing driver's licenses that use SSNs or give license applicants that option.
Last year, Virginia stopped using SSNs on driver's licenses unless the applicant requests it. Virginia residents who have not applied for new licenses or renewed their old ones in the past year are still flashing their SSNs. In the District, applicants can now request a computer-generated driver's license number, but if they don't, their SSN is used by default.
Advocating for protections against identity theft nationwide, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) yesterday introduced the Social Security Number Misuse Prevention Act, which, if passed into law, would restrict public access to SSNs -- removing them from government checks, marriage licenses, public records and many other legal documents that currently use them for identification.
Earlier this month, Feinstein also introduced a bill that would increase sentences for criminals convicted of identity theft.
Many readers criticized the credit-reporting bureaus for not safeguarding reports when institutions request them unknowingly for identity thieves applying for credit under a stolen name.
California is trying for a solution to this. A law went into effect on Jan. 1 giving Californians the right to pay to lock down their credit reports at the three major bureaus -- Experian, Equifax and Trans Union. When legitimate access is needed, consumers can unlock their reports for a specific period and control who has access.
"If you have been a victim of identity theft, you can freeze your credit report without charge," explains California state Sen. Debra Bowen, who introduced the legislation. "If you haven't filed a police report as a victim, you can still freeze it but the bureaus are allowed to charge a reasonable fee" -- depending on the bureau, from $12 per freeze to $59 to cover a year.
Another provision makes it illegal for businesses to display SSNs, print them on identification cards or on material mailed to customers. In December, Bowen introduced legislation to extend that to public agencies, including colleges.
"The irony is that the Social Security card says right on it 'not for identification purposes,' " says Bowen. "If we want to put a stop to identity theft, we need to quit making it so easy for criminals."
And none too soon. The FTC report found that California ranked first with the most identity theft complaints -- 30,738. Based on number of victims per 100,000, however, the District ranked first (123.1 per 100,000, or 704 total), California second (90.7), Maryland ninth (66, or 3,497 total) and Virginia 16th (48, or 3,395).
So far, the credit bureaus aren't extending credit report freeze services nationally. "It's a little premature to judge whether it might have a national market, but it is clearly something Trans Union is watching," says spokesman Clark Walter.
Equifax spokesman Mitch Haws points out that identity theft preventions are already available, including putting a free "fraud alert" on your credit reports and monitoring programs such as Equifax's Credit Watch, which for $69.95 a year notifies you of any credit inquiry.
Experian spokeswoman Susan Henson says: "We feel it is a bit of a cumbersome law and it might make consumers unable to get fast credit."
Says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group: "Ideally, all consumers . . . should have the right to control access to their credit reports for free. With ID theft skyrocketing, that's the real solution."
Got a consumer complaint? Question? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.