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California and the West

Victim Tells Senate Panel of Identity Theft

Crime: Bills seek to ban use of Social Security numbers for identifying customers. Credit bureaus strongly oppose plan.


SACRAMENTO — Since a Los Angeles thief pilfered his identity last summer and began an extravagant spending spree, Joe Zikaro's life has become his "worst nightmare come true."

Although an attentive Sears employee tipped off Zikaro that someone had tapped his financial information, enabling him to warn credit bureaus something was afoot, the thief still ran amok.

By the time Zikaro testified Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging passage of legislation that would clamp down on the rapid escalation of identity theft in California, creditors were after him for more than $44,000.

The unpaid bills included a massive cellular phone tab and 200 bad checks that Zikaro never wrote. He has spent countless hours trying to restore order to his financial affairs--and expects to spend countless more before his ordeal ends.

"The burden is entirely on the consumer to prove their innocence, again and again," Zikaro, a resident of Elk Grove, told legislators. "Thieves know this, and they go merrily spending thousands and thousands of dollars from their victims without any fear of apprehension."

Illuminated by Zikaro's personal tale of horror, the bill by Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) to ban banks, colleges and health plans from using Social Security numbers as their customer ID numbers passed its first test Tuesday. Consumer groups and privacy advocates say the bill is the cornerstone of efforts to fight ID theft.

In addition to banning all public and private institutions from using Social Security numbers as identification, the measure would allow consumers to freeze their credit reports if they suspect someone has unlawfully gained access to their identity. And it would prevent financial companies from sending pre-approved credit cards or negotiable checks to consumers, on the premise that many of those are sent to wrong addresses--or people.

Bowen said she has received five pre-approved credit offers for different people at her Sacramento residence this year, including one for her ex-husband.

"My ex-husband is pretty lucky I am a nice person," Bowen jokingly told the committee, as she passed about the offers in her ex-husband's name.

Bowen's legislation, SB 1767, is one of about eight bills moving through the Legislature that would attempt to slow what may be the nation's fastest-growing white-collar crime.

Others include a bill by Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) that would create a state database on identity theft victims, and a bill by Assemblywoman Lynne Leach (R-Walnut Creek) that would make it harder for impostors to fraudulently obtain driver's licenses.

Identity theft has risen from about 35,000 cases in 1992 to 500,000 three years ago nationwide, according to federal statistics. In Los Angeles County, the Sheriff's Department reported a 40% increase in identity theft cases from 1998 to 1999. The Los Angeles Police Department says its caseload doubled during the same period.

"Identity theft is occurring at epidemic proportions in this country," said Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based group that is pushing for new laws this year.

Bowen argued Tuesday that Social Security numbers are the ultimate passkey to people's most intimate personal and financial information and should be shielded.

But her bill was vocally opposed by credit bureaus and financial institutions, which argue the restrictions would in fact harm consumers and would be impossible to implement.

"If they choose to do that, we cannot issue a credit check for any purpose," said Tony Hadly of Experian, a California-based information services company.

Those arguments garnered little sympathy from the committee, which voted 5 to 2 to move the bill along.

Afterward, Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon) issued a strongly worded warning to creditors traditionally opposed to privacy reforms, saying the tide was turning against them in public opinion polls--and among politicians in Sacramento.

"You guys are about to get steamrolled," Peace said. "The game's over."

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