Identity Theft

Preventing Identity Theft

By Calif. State Sen. Debra Bowen

Calif. Sen. Debra Bowen (senator.bowen@sen.ca.gov), D-Redondo Beach, was first elected to the Calif. State Legislature in 1992 and has authored numerous laws to help Californians protect their privacy and prevent identity theft.

First off, the answer is no. I’m not related to actor Julie Bowen (Ed, Happy Gilmore), though if I were, perhaps I’d have a better chance at getting the guest shot on The West Wing that every California politico craves.

Identity theft is really an amazing crime. I don’t need a gun, a car, a getaway driver, a mask, a detailed escape plan, or even Julie Bowen’s last name in order to commit it. All I really need is a Social Security Number (SSN) and a computer. With that, I could—for the purposes of getting credit cards, bank loans, and who knows what else—actually be Julie Bowen or Martin Sheen or just about anyone I wanted.

Nationwide, identity theft complaints jumped 33% in 2003 and California has the third-highest per capita rate of identity theft in the nation, behind Arizona and Nevada, according to a January report issued by the Federal Trade Commission. When you consider identity theft victims spend an average of 600 hours and $1,400 to restore their good name and their good credit, I’ve spent the past four years in the California Legislature trying to give people tools to avoid becoming a victim (and a statistic) in the first place.

Key to accomplishing that goal is taking Social Security Numbers out of public view. In 2001, California became the first state in the nation to impose sweeping restrictions on how SSNs could be used by preventing businesses from using them as membership, account or identification numbers and on any materials put in the mail. That means health plans can’t put your SSN on your medical ID card, credit unions can’t have your SSN double as your checking account number, health clubs can’t use your SSN as your membership number, and much more. Last year, California expanded that law to cover government agencies, meaning public schools and colleges will have to take SSNs off student identification cards and stop posting grades by SSN.

One of the cruel ironies is your good credit history actually helps the thief who ripped off your identity. That’s because when someone “becomes” you on paper, they can walk into a bank or car dealership and the lender will pull your credit report to approve the loan or new line of credit. To prevent that from happening, California now lets you freeze access to your credit reports maintained by the three major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and Trans Union. Should a thief rip off your identity, the freeze will probably prevent them from establishing new credit in your name because few lenders will issue a loan or a credit card to someone without being able to check their credit report.

You can’t be too careful when it comes to guarding your personal information, and considering identity theft is the fastest growing white-collar crime in the country, we have our work cut out for us. Just increasing the penalties for identity theft isn’t going to do it, because you can’t throw the book at a criminal you can’t catch.

To find out more about what you can do to protect your identity, visit the California Office of Privacy Protection at www.privacy.ca.gov or the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/