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Law Raises Identity Theft to a Felony, Stiffens Penalty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The skyrocketing number of so-called identity thefts--stealing someone’s name, address or credit card information, among other personal records--led to the passage of a new get-tough law that takes effect Friday.

The state statute elevates the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony, tripling the fine and prison term to maximums of $3,000 and three years, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said at a news conference Wednesday. “The enhancements strengthen our ability to stop the crime,” he said. “Now that it’s a felony, it enables us to work with police and go after it.”

People who suspect that personal information--including Social Security numbers or data on driver’s licenses--has been stolen should report the theft to local police. The consumer protection division of Garcetti’s office advises that victims cancel credit cards, notify their banks and send a copy of the police report to credit bureaus.

The new law does not, however, force financial institutions to tighten their policies on granting credit or providing personal information to others, Garcetti said. Typically, credit card companies and lending institutions write off the expenses incurred by fraud as operating costs, avoiding the publicity, he said.

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In recent years, identity thefts have exploded. Credit reporting firms say that the number of reported fraud cases has soared from fewer than 12,000 a year in 1992 to more than 500,000 in 1997.

“This crime has an impact that is hard to overstate,” said Thomas Papageorge, head deputy for the Consumer Protection Division. “These people can’t rent cars, buy homes, and in some cases, they can’t even get a job.”

California is one of nine states to enact such a law. A federal statute--aimed at complex cases involving more than $500,000--was enacted Oct. 30. It carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Two more states have passed laws since the federal measure was signed, and Mari Frank, an activist whose name was falsely used to charge more than $50,000, hopes the trend continues.

“My whole life was in shambles,” said Frank, a Laguna Niguel attorney. “This is just the beginning of addressing the problem.”

For more information, call (213) 580-3273.


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