TRANSCRIPT OF ATTORNEY GENERAL REMARKS AT IDENTITY THEFT
PRESS CONFERENCE HELD WITH FTC TRADE COMMISSION CHAIRMAN
TIMOTHY J. MURIS AND SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN DOJ Conference Center
THURSDAY, MAY 2, 2002
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Good morning. Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in the United States. An estimated 500,000 to 700,000 Americans each year have their identity stolen, and many more Americans are victimized by the crimes facilitated by the identity theft, crimes ranging from bank and credit card fraud to international terrorism.
Today I'm announcing a two-pronged initiative to crack down on this growing crime problem. The first component of this initiative is a coordinated, nationwide effort by law enforcement, led by our U.S. attorneys, to prosecute identify theft. For the past month, federal, state, local law enforcement officials have conducted a nationwide sweep to identify, to pursue, prosecute individuals engaged in stealing the identities of American citizens.
Today I'm able to report that this operation has resulted in widespread prosecution. In total, as of this morning, 73 criminal prosecutions have been brought against 135 individuals in 24 districts. And in the last 24 hours alone, United States attorneys have begun 25 new prosecutions for identity theft crimes. The offenses charged include cases in which defendants have been bilked of millions of dollars -- pardon me -- in which defendants have bilked Americans from millions of dollars, have preyed on the elderly, have destroyed the credit of hard-working families.
One case involved defendants who located houses owned by elderly citizens, assumed their identities in order to sell or refinance, fraudulently, the properties. One defendant is charged with selling Social Security numbers on eBay. One hospital employee allegedly stole the identities of 393 hospital patients to obtain credit cards using the false identities. Another individual is charged with stealing the identity of a company executive and selling 176,000 of that executive's stock shares. And in one case in Chicago, a man is charged with capital murder for attempting to assume the identity of a homeless man in order to avoid prosecution for counterfeiting. The defendant allegedly attempted to fake his own death by finding an indigent person, killing that indigent person, and then fooling the authorities into thinking that the defendant was dead.
The second part of our two-pronged identity theft attack is to develop and match the prosecution effort with the development of legislation, legislation to address the most serious cases of this crime and to provide greater protection to the public.
And I am extremely pleased to be joined today by Senator Dianne Feinstein to announce this legislation. It is her legislation. She has shown extraordinary leadership in protecting the American people from identity theft and from the crime that identity theft facilitates. Senator, I thank you for joining in this effort and in developing the architecture of the law which is needed to strengthen our capacity to work -- to thwart those who would injure our citizens through identity theft.
The legislation reflects the fact, which is apparent from the prosecutions announced today, that identity theft is committed overwhelmingly for the purpose of committing another offense or other offenses. In addition to the credit card and financial fraud crimes often committed, identity theft is a major facilitator of international terrorism. Terrorists have used stolen identities in connection with planned terrorist attacks. An Algerian national facing U.S. charges of identity theft, for example, allegedly stole the identities of 21 members of a health club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and transferred the identities to one of the individuals convicted in the failed 1999 plot to bomb the Los Angeles International Airport.
To address the seriousness of the crimes committed with stolen identities, our legislation creates a new crime of aggravated identity theft. This new class of identity theft is defined by the nature and seriousness of the crimes committed through the use of another's identity. Penalties for this new offense are significantly enhanced. Individuals found guilty of aggravated identity theft will receive an additional two years' imprisonment over and above their sentences for the underlying offense.
Our legislation also broadens the basic identity-theft provision by prohibiting not just the transfer or use of another's identity information, but also possession of such information in conjunction with the requisite criminal intent. In addition, the maximum penalties for identity theft are increased and a higher maximum penalty is included for identity theft used to facilitate acts of domestic terrorism.
The Department of Justice is committed to seeing to it that criminals and terrorists cannot find refuge in the identities of law-abiding citizens of this country.
I want to thank the many different law enforcement agencies whose hard work and cooperation made possible the prosecutions announced today. And this is a significant list, but this cooperation has been substantial and valuable.
The White Collar Crime Council's Identity Theft subcommittee has worked diligently to coordinate the law enforcement efforts. At the federal level, the Federal Trade Commission, the United States Secret Service, the Postal Inspection Service, the FBI, the Office of the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration, and the IRS Criminal Investigation Division have all played vital roles in pursuing identity theft. State and local law enforcement agencies have also played an important and indispensable role in our coordinated response.
I would just like to ask those individuals who are here today from these various agencies to stand and be recognized, the ones that I have mentioned, and others that have participated. Would you do that, please? I thank you for your participation and your help, and I know that we are grateful to you. Thank you very much.
And now it's my pleasure to introduce Senator Dianne Feinstein, whose work in this field has been continuous and whose value in that respect to the Department of Justice and the American people is substantial.
Senator, thank you very much for the work you're doing.
SEN. FEINSTEIN: Thank you very much, attorney general. Thank you. Thank you.
I want to begin by thanking the attorney general for his leadership, because I think he adds a clout to a battle that has been growing, and that is the identity theft battle. I learned about it, I guess about four years ago, because California leads the nation in identity thefts. We held a hearing in Los Angeles. The sheriff of Los Angeles testified, indicated that he had actually set up a special unit to help victims restore their identity. It is the largest single growing crime, actually, in America. And the fact that the attorney general is taking the lead I think hopefully will be a message to United States attorneys all across the land to begin to prosecute under this legislation.
The average identity theft in the nation is about $18,000. The length of time it takes an individual to recover their identity is often between a year and a half and two years. The victim of identity theft is really affected because they have in effect lost their identity. It's very difficult to prove again who you are. And it is very easy to gain another's identity. You can pick up a credit card slip out of a trash can. You can buy Social Security numbers, drivers licenses from at least 12 sites on the Internet for about $15. And it's a very serious crime.
What this legislation does, as I look at it, is essentially make a sentencing enhancement that if you've committed certain predicate crimes, you get a two-year sentencing enhancement if you've used false identity, the identity of another.
If you have committed a terrorist crime, it's a five-year sentencing enhancement on top. So I am very happy, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to do what I can to see that this legislation gets passed.
Senator Gregg and I have legislation which would prevent the Social Security number, which is the most common identity document that used in identity theft, from being used publicly. It has become a kind of national identifier. And it's sold easily, it's transmitted easily. As you know, Social Security has just now begun to stop using it on the envelopes of checks they mail out. And we hope to have this marked up in two weeks in the Judiciary Committee.
So we are taking action, and this takes penalty actions, which I think are really necessary to bring the serious nature of this crime to the forefront of public attention.
So I want to thank you, Attorney General, for doing this. I think it's a significant action, and hopefully, it's going to pay some strong dividends.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: It's my pleasure now. Thank you very much, Senator.
SEN. FEINSTEIN: You're very welcome. ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: Thank you for your work.
Tim Muris is the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. And I want to thank you very much for your interest in this issue and for the activity that the Federal Trade Commission has undertaken to help defend citizens of this nation from this kind of criminal activity.
Mr. Chairman, thank you very much for coming.
MR. MURIS: Thank you. Thank you, Senator.
Good afternoon. Thank you, Mr. Attorney General for the introduction. I'm delighted to be here at this announcement of a nationwide crackdown on identity theft.
Identity theft is the number-one complaint that we receive from consumers at the Federal Trade Commission. Each week, our staff talks to over 3,000 Americans whose financial well-being has already been compromised by identity thieves or who are worried that their identities have been placed in jeopardy. As the president recently said, quote, "One of the most harmful abuses of personal information is identity theft," close quote.
For a consumer, as Senator Feinstein was mentioning, proving you are who you say you are, closing accounts that have been opened fraudulently in your name and restoring your good credit history can take enormous amounts of time, energy and money.
At the FTC, we maintain the only nationwide database that includes detailed information about consumers' experiences. We received over 86,000 complaints last year, and our database now has over 120,000 complaints. We operate a website on identity theft: consumer.gov/idtheft. And we staff a toll-free number: 1-877- IDTHEFT. We give consumers a single source of comprehensive information about identity theft.
We've also developed an affidavit to help reduce the hassle for victims who need to report the theft to all of their creditors. We're very pleased that a very large number of local and national creditors now accept this affidavit. We've also written a guide to dealing with identity theft: "When Bad Things Happen to Your Good Name." We've distributed literally millions of copies, and we recently translated it, along with our uniform affidavit, into Spanish. Working closely with the Secret Service, we analyzed our complaint data and sent out investigative reports to financial crimes task forces all over United States.
I'm grateful that the Secret Service loaned us an agent last year and will provide another this year to help us staff these efforts. With the invaluable help of the Justice Department and the Secret Service, we co-sponsor hands-on training for law enforcement on how to investigate identity theft. Just last month, more than 100 law enforcement officials attended one of our training programs. Three similar programs will be held in the next few months across the country.
We don't stop there; we also work with businesses to explore practical, cost-effective ways to prevent identity theft and to help their customers who have been victims. Earlier this week, we met with representatives from 20 companies to examine good, better and even best practices in preventing and mitigating identity theft. The attorney general's call for aggressive criminal prosecution and enhanced penalties offer (sic) the surest way to catch the thieves and protect both consumers and businesses. I enthusiastically support this proposal. I look forward to continuing our efforts with the Congress and with the Department of Justice.
ATTY GEN. ASHCROFT: I have the happy privilege this afternoon of appearing before the Senate Committee on Appropriations, and I'm going to excuse myself. Dan Collins of the Department of Justice is here to answer questions on the part of the Department. And these individuals, should they choose to subject themself (sic) to your inquiries, would also do so, I'm sure, with pleasure, should they choose to do so.
(Ashcroft and other participants exchange thank-yous as he leaves.)
Q Senator, has there been a problem getting U.S. attorneys interested in prosecuting these crimes?
SEN. FEINSTEIN: It's been the -- well, it depends on state law and federal law, but this has not been -- this has been a crime that has not been taken terribly seriously until recently.
And the ease with which people can achieve identity theft documents or documents on which to base an identity theft is as easy as reading an obituary column, getting somebody's birth certificate, their driver's license, and then you go and get credit cards in their name. And then you can go out and actually steal from them in a rather massive way. This has happened over and over again, and it's a very serious crime because the loss actually becomes substantial for the individual.
And very often, you know, stalkers have used identity theft. We know terrorists have used identity theft. And so the ability here -- that if somebody is going to, let's say, apply for a passport and use false documents, they're going to -- and then go out and commit a crime, they're going to be able to have a very substantial sentence.
Q Senator Feinstein, you're supporting the legislation the attorney general announced today. Does -- has he told you whether he supports the bill you and Senator Gregg have been pushing?
SEN. FEINSTEIN: No. As a matter of fact, the administration is going to make comments on it next week. I think they're leaning towards support. That's the rumor I hear. I'm hopeful. But we should know next week what the position of the administration is.
Q Senator --
SEN. FEINSTEIN: Yes?
Q -- the attorney general mentioned that -- was it not until recently that the Social Security administration stopped putting Social Security numbers on the outside of envelopes? Can you talk about that a little bit more and how much that fueled the problem by having --
SEN. FEINSTEIN: Well, that just cures it in one sense, and that is that the envelop containing a Social Security check won't have the number on the outside, so that anybody passing out the mail in an apartment building or handling it can pick up a Social Security number. But that's just one source.
I mean, think of how easy it is. You sign -- you go to a restaurant, you know. You sign the bill. You use a credit card. Your credit card number is on the duplicate. What happens with the duplicate? Somebody picks it up. They've got your name, they've got a credit card number, and they're kind of off to the races.
So it's a crime that is constantly increasing, I think, in the public consciousness, and it's a amazing the large numbers of people. I mean, you have over 600,000 of these thefts now a year in the United States, and they're growing. Credit card companies say their losses are in excess of a billion dollars. So it's a very substantial crime.
STAFF: (Off mike.)
SEN. FEINSTEIN: Is that it?
STAFF: Thank you very much.
SEN. FEINSTEIN: Thank you very much.