Imagine you return from a trip abroad. You are detained at the border, arrested and thrown in jail for a crime committed by someone else posing as you. It's the worst-case scenario for a victim of identity theft, say experts, a crime that has hit more and more people in the United States in the last decade.
Increasingly thieves are stealing the key personal data of others -- their driver's license, credit card and Social Security numbers -- and are using the information to commit fraud, usually by applying for credit in another's name and running up huge debts. In rare cases, criminals give cops the stolen I.D. when they get arrested.
Identity poachers are savvy; Many of them are organized professionals, experts say. They use false addresses to avoid detection and victims often don't discover the crimes until they try to buy a car, receive a call from a bill collector or travel abroad. By that time, their debts may have ballooned to tens of thousands of dollars.
Since 1998, states have been paying increasing attention to identity crimes. In 1998, the U.S Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act making the crime a federal offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
As directed by Congress, the Federal Trade Commission ( whose Chairman Robert Pitofski has himself been a victim of identity thieves) has opened a bureau dedicated solely to tracking the crimes and assisting victims. Beth Grossman of the FTC says the bureau's hotline, which has only been up and running for a few months, receives as many as 1,000 calls a week.
"There clearly are a lot of victims out there," Grossman said.
Led by California and Arizona, 30 states have now added the offense to their criminal codes. This year, Kentucky and Utah became the latest to act. Both laws allow prosecutors to charge identity thieves with felonies.
In a handful of other states, lawmakers, with the strong backing of consumer advocates, are pushing for additional protections for consumers, usually by requiring businesses to obtain permission before trading or selling personal information. These bills, however, are meeting vigorous opposition from banks and credit bureaus.
"Education and incarceration are not the answers to identity theft," said Edmund Mierzwinski of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington D.C. States and the federal government "have jumped on the criminalization issue as a panacea. It's absurd to think that is going to solve the problem."
Identity theft is a crime of the computer age. Banks, credit bureaus and even state governments have profited enormously from the information they have stored about specific individuals.
Banks are now able to target consumers with good credit histories and it is often by stealing loan and credit offers that crooks are able to go to work.
Credit bureaus, on the other hand, are proving ruthlessly efficient at tracking these bad debts. Years after reporting the crimes and supposedly clearing their records, victims complain, unpaid bills pop up on their credit reports with the persistence of a recurring rash.
According to New York's Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, individual social security numbers, bank and credit account numbers and drivers' license numbers are now available -- for a price -- on the Internet.
As U.S. PIRG's Mierzwinski sees it, the only way to effectively stop identity theft is to make it easier for victims to clear their credit reports and to force banks to keep a tighter rein on consumer information.
"God knows, we care about this stuff," said Gregory Wilhelm, Director of Government Relations for the California Bankers' Association. "When there is fraud involved, as there always is in identity theft, we eat the economic loss."
But, most identity thefts are not the result of sharing information among companies, he said, but of mail pilfering and going through people's trash -- a practice known as "dumpster diving."
Wilhelm argues that many of the proposed solutions, particularly a wide-ranging bill pending in California, are unnecessary and will ultimately harm consumers.
Dropping the use of social securities numbers, as California Senator Debra Bowen has proposed, involves enormous costs, that ultimately will drive up the price of credit.
"A Social Security number is frequently used as a secondary source of confirming the information of a customer when they deal with you," he said. "It happens to be a number that most people know."
Lawmakers in several states this year, including California, Washington, New York and Minnesota, are trying to stem the flow of information about consumers that they say has enabled identity theft to proliferate.