President Bush is poised to sign today a bill designed to combat the burgeoning crime of ID theft, particularly phishing scams.
The Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act (ITPEA) establishes "punishment guidelines for anyone who possesses someone else's identification-related information with intent to commit a crime", CNET reports. These include an extra two years in jail for "anyone who, while engaged in any of a long list of crimes, knowingly 'transfers, possesses, or uses, without lawful authority' someone else's identification", and a supplementary five years for anyone "committing identity fraud while engaged in certain major crimes sometimes associated with terrorism - such as aircraft destruction, arson, airport violence or kidnapping top government officials".
The legislation is an attempt to address the issue of ID fraud and crime which are estimated to affect between seven and 10 million US citizens every year. As well as phishing, US authorities report that misuse of Social Security Numbers (SSNs) and credit card and bank fraud have risen dramatically.
The mandatory imposition of jail time is seen as a way of deterring those who have seen fraudsters cuffed but let off lightly. CNET cites the example of Dolores Rodriguez, who was rumbled while working under her husband's SSN. She pocketed $80,000 in disability benefits, only to get off with home confinement and probation.
Federal intervention will also help facilitate prosecutions, as Chris Hoofnagle, deputy director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington DC told CNET: "A big problem in identity theft comes from lack of enforcement. There are problems with state authorities who tend not to want to deal with the problem. If you're a Washington, D.C., resident and someone in California steals your identity, both Washington and California police will play ping-pong with your case to avoid dealing with it. They have other priorities. Enforcement at a federal level may deter the crime and provide the opportunity to capture thieves who are evading state enforcement."
Some, however, doubt that a minimum five-year jail term will deter hardened criminals. There are also other implications to interfering with a judge's discretion on sentencing, as Democratic Virginia Congressman Robert Scott outlined to CNET: "Congress is not in a better position to determine what the appropriate sentences are in individual cases before the crime occurs than a judge is when he has heard the evidence. Mandatory minimum sentences not only defeat the rational sentencing system that Congress adopted, but [they also] make no sense in our separation-of-powers scheme of governance. Moreover, the notion that mandating a two- or five-year sentence to someone who is willing to risk a 15-year sentence already is not likely to add any deterrence." ®
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