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Oregon Editors Say

Heed the thieves

Identity theft is far too easy. Credit companies should share responsibility

The (Salem) Statesman Journal

It is not often that the advice of thieves inspires an editorial.

For three days this week, the Statesman Journal series has documented how easy it is for criminals to steal your identity and how hard it is for you to repair the damage.

A few numbers on a credit card receipt; a driver's license from a purse left unguarded for an instant; a piece of junk mail ' in the wrong hands, these can trigger loss of your good name and credit.

This invasion of your private affairs can cause nearly as much grief as a physical attack. What is more, the damage may last longer, as you spend hundreds of hours trying to prove that you didn't make fraudulent credit-card purchases or pass bad checks.

— In the process, you may find it impossible to get credit for a home loan, a car or a business expansion ' goals you have earned by your hard work.

The outrageous thing is how easy some banks and credit companies make this crime. Thieves interviewed for the series sounded incredulous at the easy money waved before them: Offers for instant-approval credit cards. Credit card checks that you can spend like cash. Documents that use a social security number as identification.

One Salem thief, now serving time in prison, said he simply followed the postal carrier to harvest mail from unlocked boxes. He sold the information to others who created false identities; with these, they could easily pass counterfeit checks or open bogus lines of credit.

In the wake of this series, many readers may rush to buy shredders or change their mailboxes. Some will call for police departments to devote more resources to catching identity thieves; the courts, to prosecuting them; and the jails, to holding them. These responses make sense.

But the best target for the public's anger is the companies that put us in this position in the first place. Why should consumers and local governments have to spend a fortune to clean up the mess that these companies have created?

It is time to stop these invitations-to-steal at the source. If ABC Bank's skip-a-payment checks are used fraudulently, make the bank pay to clean up the damage to the rightful customer's credit rating. Ditto for companies that mass-market unsolicited credit card offers to college students or schools that use social-security numbers for students' IDs.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski already has signed a package of measures that make modest reforms in Oregon, such as banning credit card receipts that show more than five digits of the card number. This fall, the U.S. House will consider a fair credit act that owes much to the dogged work of Rep. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore.

These steps are good ones. But lawmakers, especially in Congress, must do far more ' even at the risk of offending their wealthy contributors in the banking and credit industries.

Meanwhile, do all you can to protect your own good name. Buy a cross-cut shredder. Get a locked mailbox or a post office box. Encourage businesses to verify your ID when you cash a check and to compare the signature on your credit-card receipt with the one on your card.

Don't take our word for it ' ask an identity thief.