For the past month, a detective has been trying to arrest me in New York. Most people in such a position would be highly distressed, but I am frankly delighted. Perhaps an arrest will bring an end to a criminal life that began for me in December, when I started buying luxury cars for friends in the Bronx.
Of course, when I first learned that I was on the lam, I was more than a little surprised because I was in Washington at the time, driving a beat-up green Volvo wagon. I had become the latest victim of identity theft, joining tens of millions of other victims across the country.
The numbers are staggering. Between April 1998 and April 2003, 27.3 million Americans had their identities stolen. This figure reflects the exponential growth of this type of crime: 10 million of those crimes occurred in 2003 alone.
Just this past week, a commercial information company, ChoicePoint Inc., announced that identity thieves had stolen a mother lode of information on nearly 150,000 people, including at least one person who has already seen his savings account cleared out. The company said Monday that the fraud could affect people in all 50 states.
In my case, I was apparently saved by a news junkie who’d seen me on TV. When the suspect and a friend appeared at the Courtesy Auto Mall in the Bronx to buy two luxury cars, they had neither the money nor the credit to make the purchases. Explaining that he was an employee at CBS News, the suspect, according to police reports, then returned with his “uncle” Jonathan Turley, who, generous to a criminal fault, promptly signed for both cars. Before the cars were handed over, someone apparently noticed that the last time I was on television, I was neither African-American nor particularly young.
The truth: Crime pays
Police have now charged Alexander Lewis, who is believed to be a former CBS security employee. He stands accused of stealing my Social Security number when I worked for CBS as its legal analyst during the 2004 presidential election. A second man has been arrested. Police are now hot on the trail of the final suspected culprit, Jonathan Turley himself.
Those who insist that crime never pays have never met an identity thief. Identity theft not only pays, it pays extremely well. This is because the detection rate of identity theft is the lowest of any category of crime. Consider the current rage among identity thieves: phishing.
First detected in 1996, phishing involves the use of fraudulent Internet sites that induce unsuspecting consumers to share personal information, which is then sold to identity thieves. More than 57 million people have received phishing e-mails, and these criminals have a return rate of 3%-5% — the same return for legitimate mass mailers.
There is so much profit and so few deterrents that one company openly offers a phishing how-to kit for $270. Indeed, thieves are so bold that they held a conference in Kiev for people interested in breaking into this growth industry.
Last week, after giving the keynote address at the federal conference on identity theft, I was able to speak to government and private experts from around the world. They are not an optimistic lot. Though strides have been made, it’s clear who is winning that war: the identity thieves.
Identity theft costs businesses roughly $50 billion a year in the USA, and consumers lose an additional $5 billion. The true costs, however, are more intangible and profound. There is nothing as precious to most people as their name. When a stranger uses that name for petty crimes, a deep sense of invasion and vulnerability remains.
Those intangible costs were evident when Andrew Brooke of Washington state was recently tracked down for not paying for large amounts of the painkiller Oxycontin. The only problem is that Andrew is 3 weeks old. He was not on this Earth for even a month before he became a crime victim and his name was tainted by fraud.
Holes in the system
Identity thieves are winning because they are playing on the known weaknesses of the system.
• First, turf barriers still exist between law enforcement agencies. It took the 9/11 attacks to dissolve such bureaucratic barriers in the area of intelligence, but identity theft lacks such a defining moment to shock the public to action.
• Second, detectives uniformly complain about a lack of commitment from prosecutors. With an average loss of $700, prosecutors view these cases as small potatoes. By keeping thefts small, these criminals can operate with near impunity. The Bronx, where I went on my car-buying spree, is considered a haven for identity theft.
• Third, citizens lack information on hot spots for identity theft. There is no annual report on the relative prosecution rates of different cities so that voters can hold politicians accountable. For example, Manhattan recently started a task force on identity theft, but this may simply shift activities to softer jurisdictions such as the Bronx.
• Fourth, the greatest source for Social Security numbers remains the government itself. More than 75% of counties include Social Security numbers on public documents, exposing as many as 94% of citizens to identity theft. In addition, states have been gushing with other confidential information on their citizens.
• Finally, there is no international agreement to bar the sale of phishing kits or to coordinate information and enforcement.
With the arrest of the suspects in New York, my own problems with identity theft may be at least temporarily halted.
I may, indeed, be a little bit wiser, but I’m also still monitoring my credit record … and I’m still driving a beat-up green Volvo wagon.
The REAL Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of the USA TODAY board of contributors.