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Feinstein Seeks Tougher Laws on Identity Theft

Senator promotes her plans in the Inland Empire, where the crime is a serious problem.

March 30, 2005|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein arrived in Riverside on Tuesday to promote legislation that would crack down on identity theft -- an issue that has special resonance in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, one of the hardest hit regions in the nation for the crime.

"The scope of this is enormous," said Feinstein (D-Calif.), citing recent security breaches as proof that further controls are needed. Those breaches included the recent theft of a laptop computer containing more than 100,000 Social Security numbers at UC Berkeley.

People "don't know that their identity has been compromised, and these thieves proceed to rip off ... a large number of victims," she said.

California has the greatest number of identity theft victims in the nation -- 43,839 in 2004, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

More than 5,400 of those victims live in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, making it the second-highest per-capita rate of identity theft in the nation, according to the federal agency. First is the Phoenix/Mesa, Ariz., area.

"Identity theft is replacing meth labs as our biggest crime problem," said Riverside County Dist. Atty. Grover Trask.

Feinstein met with law enforcement officials from around the state, consumer advocates and identity theft victims before holding a news conference to lobby for support for legislation to protect consumers.

Her proposed bills would require companies to notify customers whose personal information has been compromised; require consumers' permission for companies to share the most sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers and financial information; prohibit the sale or display of Social Security numbers; and require that those numbers be removed from public records published on the Internet.

The local concentration of identity theft crimes may be linked to the methamphetamine abuse problems in the region, where drug users are paid to forage through people's garbage for discarded mail and to reassemble shredded documents, said Michael Ramos, San Bernardino County district attorney.

Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle said his deputies see the consequences of identity theft every day. "It's like taking your soul away from you, and the problems continue on and on and on," he said.

Janelle DeMarco knows from personal experience. The San Bernardino County woman was employed by the city utility in Anaheim. When Abrianna Sniderman, a co-worker, started asking questions about DeMarco's family and employment history, she thought the woman was trying to get to know her.

"She used that information to steal my identity," DeMarco said.

Investigators eventually found that Sniderman, of Corona, had done the same thing with other colleagues and at a previous job, stealing from 13 people and 21 businesses.

Sniderman pleaded guilty to 44 felony counts and is serving a five-year, four-month prison sentence.

That case is one of scores prosecuted in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, including that of a bank teller who removed $106,000 from 21 people's accounts and a man who stole the identities of two World Trade Center victims and bought cars and a $600,000 house in their names. Law enforcement officials say they see no end in sight.

"This tsunami of crime is not receding," said Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. "It's not going to go away tomorrow."

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