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Identity Theft is a growing problem and legislators are responding

February 09, 1999
By: Melisssa Miller
State Capital Bureau
Links: SB 100 & HB 167

JEFFERSON CITY - We often worry about having our wallet stolen or our car stolen, but should we worry about someone stealing our identity?

Last year 40,000 people in the U.S. were victims of identity theft, one of the fastest growing crimes in the country. Someone used their name, date of birth, or Social Security number with an unlawful intent.

Russell Klement, Lee Summit, was one of those 40,000. Someone ordered a box of checks using his personal information.

During a 10-day period someone, posing as Klement, wrote 25 to 50 checks. He closed the account before the checks cleared, but now he is haunted by a bad credit rating.

"There is a shock in finding out that your years of excellent credit are about to be dismantled by someone you may not know," said Klement, who has been lobbying for a new law that would make identity theft a crime.

But folks like Klement are not the only victims. Under current laws, the merchants who accepted these bad checks were out money.

Identity thieves' actions are punishable under current statutes against fraud and stealing. While no groups have voiced oposition to the proposed legislation, the benefits are unclear.

"It could enhance punishment," said Mark Flanegin, Boone County Assistant Prosecutor. "But in some cases there would be a tougher punishment under current statutes."

Four lawmakers have introduced identity theft measures because someone in their district has been a victim. They say they want to bring Missouri law in line with a federal law passed in October. Nine other states, including Kansas, Wisconsin and Colorado have identity theft statutes on the books.

The increasing number of identity theft laws may be due to technological advances that have made such scams easier to carry out. The Internet, for example, has inspired criminals to plot new technological schemes.

"Because it's easier to access credit card and Social Security numbers, this will be a much bigger problem than it has been in the past," said Sen. Bill Kenney, R-Lee Summit, sponsor of an identity theft bill.

In addition to the Internet, some blame the financial industry for the surge in identity theft.

"My impostor used my Social Security number to get a credit card in my name," said Mari Frank, an identity theft victim and author of "From Victim to Victor. "The bank didn't verify the identity."

But one local banker said his bank does not facilitate identity fraud.

"Our bank spends a good deal of time checking and verifying account applications," said James Schatz, President and CEO of the Central Missouri Region of Commerce Bank.

The proposed identity theft measures wouldn't have helped Frank. Her case could have been prosecuted under fraud law, which is a class C felony and carries a stiffer punishment than the identity theft bills offer."

Still, identity theft victims want the bills passed.

"It would give us another weapon in the prosecution of these types of offenses," Flanegin said.

Victims of identity theft want such a weapon and lawmakers are listening to their cries.