Identity theft has become a worldwide crime. In 2002 it cost consumers in Britain, Australia and Canada $6 Billion (U.S.). Last year in Japan, thieves stole the financial records of 4.5 million subscribers to an Internet service provider.
In the United States, there is now a federal task force to fight identity theft. Thirteen Federal agencies, including the Attorney General's Office and the Federal Trade Commission, are targeting a problem that hurts people's reputations as well as their bank accounts.
U.S. President George Bush says nearly 10 million Americans are victimized by identity theft each year. "I have just listened to the horror stories from our fellow citizens who have had their identity stolen." The president says he wants a more coordinated response to a problem that's hurting a growing number of Americans.
Among them, Nicole Robinson, who says she lost more than just money when her personal information was stolen.
“Everything I had worked so hard for, was taken away from me in an instant: my good credit. You spend years working hard, paying your bills on time to have good credit. And that was taken away in an instant.
The Federal Trade Commission (F.T.C.), which regulates unfair or deceptive trade practices, says repairing the damage done by identity thieves can last years and can cost an average of $6,000 per case.
Joel Winston is an associate director at the F.T.C'.s division of privacy and identity protection. "It's a very complex problem and there's no simple solution for it, but there's a lot we can do together if we work together in an effective way to try to limit the problem and that's what this task force is designed to do."
One way to limit the problem is to give consumers an early warning on any suspicious activity on their credit reports. President Bush has signed a new law that will require credit companies to give consumers a free credit report once a year.
The F.T.C. says another solution is to educate consumers.
Betsy Broder, with the agency's Bureau of Consumer Protection, says consumers should not make the thieves' job easier. She offers some tips, "Keep your personal information private. Just like you wouldn't give your cash out, you don't want to give out personal information about yourself. So be careful of what you carry in your wallet."
Some consumer advocates applaud the president for putting the spotlight on identity theft, but Ed Mierzwinski with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group says the task force will have little effect without tougher enforcement and safeguards on the growing number of businesses that collect personal and financial information for a variety of reasons.
"The real solution is to prevent the sloppy business practices that make it easy to happen, then to give police money to clean it up."
The Federal Trade Commission says identity theft has become the number one consumer fraud complaint, with more than 255,000 calls last year.
And it is not just a U.S. concern. Countries around the world are urgently looking for ways to increase passport security, and discourage identity theft in all its forms.