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Taking Aim at Identity Thieves

November 08, 1998

A new law gives consumers their first federal safeguards against crooks who steal their identities to illegally use their good credit. The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act makes it a felony punishable by a prison term to assume another person's identity through unauthorized use of his or her name or any identifying numbers.

Under the act, the Federal Trade Commission is responsible for creating a clearinghouse for consumer complaints and providing information to help victims recover. The agency will forward complaints to credit reporting bureaus and law enforcement authorities for prosecution. The tracking should help identify thieves and their patterns.

A major question is what credit reporting bureaus will do when they receive the complaints. The law does not specify the bureaus' responsibilities, and the FTC does not have regulatory authority over them, so mutually agreeable guidelines must be established. Vigilant FTC monitoring will be required to ensure that the bureaus, which have always lagged in consumer protection, do their part.

The consumer must maintain the first wall of defense, keeping documents and cards safe from crooks. But if that wall is breached, the FTC and police agencies must step in just as they would in any criminal act.

The theft of your car or household possessions is a costly and frightening experience. But when someone illegally uses your identity, you suffer an even deeper loss: control of your life.

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