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PIRG Identity Theft II:  INTRODUCTION

For over eight years, PIRGs have worked to pass stronger consumer privacy and credit reporting protections in state legislatures and Congress. In response to a growing number of consumer complaints related to fraudulent information on their credit reports, the PIRG Consumer Team commenced a study of the growing problem of identity theft fraud in 1995 and published its findings in a national report two weeks after the U.S. Federal Trade Commission held the first nationwide summit conference on identity theft in August 1996. That PIRG report, "Theft of Identity: The Consumer X-Files," based on interviews with victims, law enforcement, credit industry representatives and privacy advocates, provided an overview of the problem, documented identity theft cases and provided recommendations for consumers and legislators.

 Over the last year since the release of PIRG's report and the summit conference, the FTC has hosted further discussions on identity theft fraud and has held a number of hearings on privacy issues which contribute to the problem. Many of the recommendations in PIRG's 1996 report have also been incorporated into identity theft bills introduced in Congress and several state legislatures, including California, Colorado, New York, and New Jersey.

In response to the outpouring of calls from identity theft victims struggling to deal with the damage wreaked by their impostors, CALPIRG and Privacy Rights Clearinghouse joined together to produce a comprehensive consumer guide which outlines the steps identity theft victims need to take to clear up their credit. The two groups have assisted hundreds of victims through their hotlines and have distributed thousands of copies of the identity theft guide to consumers in response to mail-in and e-mail requests. Additionally, the guide is being distributed to identity theft victims by law enforcement agencies and other consumer advocacy organizations across the country. The groups are working to update the guide as new information is constantly being gleaned from the experiences of identity theft victims. The FTC has also established a new "Consumer Response Center" which will attempt to better track reports of identity theft to the agency.

While various terms such as "account takeover" and "true name" fraud have been used by different agencies, "identity theft" has become the common tag for referring to a whole host of crimes involving the theft of consumer personal information. Thieves who obtain social security numbers and other identifiers take over existing credit and bank accounts, open new accounts with banks, retailers and other creditors, apply for jobs and housing, take out loans, open utility and long distance phone accounts, obtain false identification, pass fraudulent checks, and carry on other fraudulent acts to obtain cash, goods, and services in the victim's name. Our focus in this report is not on the criminals who deserve swift and severe punishment for their acts, but rather, on the credit industry practices that contribute to and exacerbate the problems faced by identity theft victims.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is a nonprofit consumer information and advocacy program based in San Diego, California. It was established in 1992 and is affiliated with the Utility Consumers' Action Network. The PRC operates a consumer hotline and publishes consumer guides on a number of privacy issues, among them credit reporting, telemarketing, junk mail, and social security numbers.

The PRC's first consumer publication on identity theft was published in 1995, "Coping with Identity Theft: What to Do When an Imposter Strikes." A sequel to that guide was published in 1997, in conjunction with CALPIRG, "Identity Theft: What to Do if it Happens to You." Identity theft has been the number one topic of complaint on the PRC's hotline in 1996 and 1997.

The PRC has recently published a book containing hundreds of tips for consumers on how to safeguard privacy, including a chapter on identity theft. The Privacy Rights Handbook (Avon Books, Sept. 1997, $12.50) can be obtained from bookstores, from the PRC itself (619-298-3396), and through its Web site http://www.privacyrights.org.

 


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