The Prince George's County Council yesterday adopted one the nation's first local protections for victims of so-called identity theft, giving them access to records and other assistance needed to clear their names.
The measure helps people whose identities have been used by someone else to commit fraud.
It makes any victim an official participant in the offender's legal proceedings and requires the county police department to provide the victim free copies of all public records relating to the investigation.
County agencies also are required to assist the person to correct mistaken information when a criminal steals identifying data such as a Social Security number to apply for credit cards or to withdraw money from the victim's bank accounts.
The measure is similar to a state law that went into effect in late September.
The state law stipulates that criminals pay restitution to the victims but does not provide for all of the relief included in the Prince George's legislation.
Former council member Ann Landry Lombardi, who testified yesterday in support of the legislation, said she could have used the additional help from the county when she found out in August that her identity had been stolen.
Lombardi, who lives in Upper Marlboro, said an unidentified woman withdrew $6,000 from her bank accounts one Friday afternoon using her name and an altered driver's license. The woman has not been apprehended.
"It has not been easy getting to the bottom of this," Lombardi said. "I have more trouble cashing my own checks than a crook."
The U.S. Government Accounting Office found last year that identity theft crimes increased sixteenfold from 1992 to 1998.
Maryland is one of 15 states with specific laws against identity theft. Congress made identity theft a federal crime in 1998.
Prince George's County is one of the few localities in the country to pass its own measure making identity theft a crime, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
"The state law and federal law make identification theft a crime, [but] they do not make provisions for the victim," said County Council member M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Upper Marlboro), who proposed the legislation. "That's the void we are filling."
A person convicted of breaking the county law would be subject to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.