Unfortunately, Americans are now familiar with identity theft, from having experienced it themselves or personally knowing a victim of this insidious crime.
The Consumer Sentinel Network, maintained by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), tracks consumer fraud and identity theft complaints. Of the 3.1 million complaints received in 2015, 16 percent were related to identity theft, which represented an increase by more than 47 percent from 2014. In fact, identity theft is reported as America’s No. 7 fear — before economic collapse and right after biowarfare.
This is not at all the case in Europe. Except for the U.K., our neighbors across the Atlantic barely know about identity theft. There are a number of systemic reasons for this happier situation, and some of them should inspire our policymakers here in the U.S.
Identity theft starts with the misappropriation of a victim’s personal identifiers. I am sure that none of the readers of this article would ever write their home address or license plate number on their set of keys. Then, by the same logic, why would they be okay with having their identity’s safety rely on a single all-purpose identifier?
Just like an armored door is built with numerous reinforced key points, an identity should be protected via the combination of more than one identifier. This is common sense. Unfortunately, this is not how our system works — and the culprit is our social security numbers (SSNs).
SSNs were created in 1936 to keep track of the earnings history of U.S. workers for Social Security benefit computation purposes. Their purpose was limited. Today, SSNs have become the national identifier used by both the government and the private sector as a way to identify and gather information about an individual’s financial life.
Efforts have been undertaken to curb this expansion, from legislation such as the prohibition of displaying the SSN on driver's licenses or motor vehicle registrations, to recommendations including the President's Identity Theft Task Force asking that federal agencies reduce the unnecessary use of SSNs, which they called “the most valuable commodity for an identity thief,” and the FTC’s plea to private entities to find better ways to authenticate identities.
Despite these efforts, SSNs still reign unchallenged. An identity thief only needs to get his or her hands on the 9-digit number, which is registered in many places, to steal a person’s identity and wreak havoc in their lives, from opening fraudulent credit card accounts to filing fake tax returns and more. But in Europe, social security numbers are used for retirement benefits only. An identity thief would need a person’s national ID number, which appears in very few places, and banks often additionally require a copy of a passport or identity card to prove an identity.
Once the fraudster has gone to the trouble of acquiring these precious personal identifiers, he’ll want to make money off it. And what better way than to gain access to the victim’s bank account? In America, where the use of credit cards is largely accepted, the damage an identity thief can cause is immense, because it is not limited to the amount of money present is the victim’s bank account when the theft occurs. A huge sum of credit card debt can be amassed by a thief on a shopping spree.
Meanwhile, the majority of Europeans use debit cards, which limits the losses one would endure. What’s more, the United States is one of the last countries to still use magnetic strips which are easy to replicate and therefore more liable to identity theft. European countries use a system called EMV, which adds a security layer in the form of a PIN to credit card purchases.
Part of the shift to cards embedded with an electronic chip to greatly boost security, the PIN system was introduced in the U.S. starting in 2013, but despite the liability shift — entailing that retailers who do not buy the technology used to authenticate transactions be held accountable for any fraud that occur in their store — only 37 percent of U.S. stores now accept chip cards.
It will take some time for banks to update all of their ATMs. Besides, thieves have already found a way around it: they simply create a new bank account under the victim’s name, or make purchases online where the PIN number is not required.
At the end of the day, protecting oneself and one’s family from identity theft requires each of us to take decisive steps. Control your personal identifiers closely. Sign up for monitoring of your accounts, so you’ll get a warning of unusual activity. Finally, if your identity is stolen, be prepared to have a private investigator take the necessary steps to restore your identity to its pre-theft status.
Dave Coffey is senior vice president and chief digital officer of LegalShield, a leading provider of protection against identity theft solutions.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.