Solving Identity Theft

The Internet has been blamed for a lot of things over the last five years.

But it’s not to blame for Abraham Abdallah.

In case you missed it, Mr. Abdallah allegedly stole the identities of more than half the Forbes 400 (a copy of the issue was found in his possessions) and obtained millions of dollars in cash and merchandise in their names.

The New York Post got a jump on the story by emphasizing the police angle, but MSNBC’s story featured a big graphic at its bottom reading “Invasion of Privacy” and “The Net’s Threat to You.”

While the problem of identity theft is real, huge, and growing, blaming it on the Net is not just wrong, but monstrously wrong.

When you look at how this crime was committed, it becomes obvious that it’s not the Internet that broke down, but the far older credit reporting system.

And it was one particular part of that system that broke down, the part that verifies identity.

Apparently, all Abdallah had to do in order to obtain credit reports of the rich and famous was send the requests on phony company letterhead with phony notary stamps. Once he had the reports, he worked the rest of his alleged crime through cell phones and free email accounts.

Once someone has your credit report, he or she has the electronic keys to your kingdom. The most important key is the Social Security number, but the checks against that key are also there — your address and mother’s maiden name.

Privista, backed by Equifax (one of the largest credit reporting companies), has recently gone live with a system that sells weekly monitoring and email alerts for $20 per year, plus access to your credit report for another $10 per year.

The idea is that you are notified when big charges are rung up or new accounts are created in your name, and you can quickly take action against an identity thief.

But how is your Privista identity protected? By a simple user name and password, backed by the information in your credit report.

All the objections to electronic voting come down to fears of identity theft and fraud. But how is your franchise protected now? Through a signature (easily forged) and (in some states) a driver’s license, which is also easy for an identity thief to steal.

Yet technology exists to protect identity. It’s called biometrics. We can scan irises, faces, and fingerprints. We can put all this data on a chip, on a card, on a server, and on a network.

We can use these “smart cards” to prove our identity when we shop online, or use them as credit cards when we go into stores. When the card is presented, we can verify any element with cheap, noninvasive technology.

Identities, in other words, can be verified and protected. All we have to do is demand that protection, as consumers and as citizens.

We haven’t done this because many fear a “government national identity card” that might be used to control us.

I’m not going into that argument, except to say this: Don’t blame the Internet for it.

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