In the next five minutes, an estimated five Americans will have their identities stolen by criminals who will use the information to run up thousands of dollars in credit card charges. Members of Congress are now worried that the ease of assuming someone's identity will make identity theft increasingly attractive to terrorists.
In the past three and a half years, Sallie Twentyman's life has become a living nightmare.
It began in September of 1999 when she received a credit card bill that showed someone had run up $13,000 in cash advances without her knowledge. "I'll never forget the confusion and frustration I felt that day and have felt to some extent every day since the day I received the [credit card] bill, the day I learned I was a victim of a crime that feels in many ways like financial cancer," she said.
Sallie Twentyman is a victim of identity theft. After finding her name and social security number on the Internet, someone gained access to one of her credit card accounts and ran up huge bills. The thief was able to use that account to open other credit card accounts and run up even more charges.
Ever since, Sallie Twentyman has been trying to regain her financial footing and restore her good name. "The thief is probably still out there, unapprehended, with enough of my personal information in hand to destroy my credit all over again at any time," she said. "And other potential thieves can easily access information from Internet sites that sell personal information including social security numbers."
Federal and state law enforcement officials say identity theft is one of the fastest growing and most expensive consumer frauds in the United States. In 2001 alone, 700,000 consumers were victims of identity theft at a cost of more than $1 billion.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, is among those pushing legislation that would make it tougher for thieves to obtain the personal information they need to assume someone else's identity. "It is far too easy for identity thieves to capture another person's identity and ruin their good name," she said.
Consumer fraud experts say identity thieves have become adept at using the Internet to find the personal information they need, including social security numbers and birth dates.
Lou Canon is President of the Fraternal Order of Police and has dealt with consumer fraud issues for years. At a recent Senate hearing he surprised Senator Feinstein by announcing that he had obtained enough information from her Senate web site to open a credit card account.
FEINSTEIN: " And you are saying that my web site is such that they can do that.".
CANON: " I was able to obtain enough information off your web site to obtain a credit card."
Given the ease with which identity thieves now operate, some lawmakers are concerned that terrorists could take advantage of the situation.
Senator Maria Cantwell is a Democrat from Washington state who supports the effort to crack down on identity theft. "By giving consumers and law enforcement additional tools to fight identity theft, this bill will make it harder for terrorists to steal identities and to hide their true identity," she said.
Law enforcement officials concede they face an uphill climb on controlling identity theft. A U.S. Treasury Department official told lawmakers that at the moment only 10 percent of identity fraud cases result in arrests