From the Office of State Senator Glenn Hegar, District 18

Opinion/Editorial
For Immediate Release

July 11, 2008
Contact: Lisa Craven
(512) 463-0118

Let the Punishment Fit the Crime--
Getting Tough on Identity Theft in Texas

Imagine waking up and learning that you are in default on a house in another state, own several luxury vehicles, maybe a boat or two, and owe tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars to assorted creditors. Now, imagine that it's not all a dream. You have joined the growing ranks of Americans who have fallen victim to identity theft and now face the discouraging and difficult task of reclaiming your identity and repairing your broken credit.

Incidences of identity theft have escalated with startling rapidity. According to the Federal Trade Commission, in 2000, the first year in which such data was collected, over 31,000 Americans fell victim to identity theft. In 2006, the last year for which data is available, some 246,000 Americans had their identities' stolen. While such massive growth is tied closely to the rise of the internet, another culprit must not be overlooked: the fact that our laws have struggled to keep pace with the breakneck expansion of fraud and theft that ID theft brought with it.

During the last legislative session, I partnered with State Representative Sid Miller (R, Stephenville) on House Bill 460, which attacked this rampant problem by targeting large-scale identity thieves. My colleagues in the legislature clearly saw the merit of the proposal, as it received unanimous support in both the Texas House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Perry. The bill introduced a stair-stepping punishment schedule for those found by law enforcement officials to be in unauthorized possession of the identifying documents of others.

Prior to the passage of House Bill 460, district attorneys in Texas often lacked the tools to effectively prosecute identity theft. When, for example, an individual was arrested in advance of using the identifying or financial information that they were found to be in possession of, prosecutors could only charge them with a state-jail felony that carried a maximum of a two-year sentence. Amazingly, that minimal sentence applied whether the defendant was in possession of six or six hundred pieces of identifying information. With the passage of House Bill 460, the term of confinement now relates directly to the number of pieces of identifying information the perpetrator possessed. This tool gives prosecutors, judges, and juries the flexibility to assess a range of punishment that begins with probation at the most basic level to a 99 year prison term in the most egregious cases.

One of the first applications of this new law recently occurred in Dallas County. Furnioes Giddings Parker made tens of thousands of dollars of purchases using credit card numbers she had obtained while working at various restaurants in the City of Duncanville. She also stole the identities of 14 elderly people who lived in a retirement community where she worked as a dietician. And, this was not Ms. Parker's first identity theft offense. In 1994, she was convicted of stealing the identities of 26 people and received only probation. Under the old law, Ms. Parker would have again faced a maximum of only two-years of jail time, but thanks to House Bill 460, she was assessed a 38-year sentence and will not be eligible for parole for 9 years.

While such serious penalties will likely give those considering a foray into identity theft pause, the unfortunate reality is that it is still an emerging crime and will likely occur with increasing frequency. Recognition of this trend demands action not just from the legislature and law enforcement, but from the public as well. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has embarked on a public awareness campaign that uses a slogan designed to quickly communicate the key strategies to combat identity theft: "Deter, Detect, and Defend."

Deterrence strategies outlined by the FTC include: the shredding of financial or identifying documents, the removal of one's social security from their wallet and of any reference to it on their checks, the securing of personal information within one's home, and the selection of passwords not tied to such obvious choices as birthdates or pet names, and, finally, to never disclose personal information over the phone or through the internet unless you are absolutely sure of with whom you are communicating.

Detection is the second strategy. The FTC urges citizens to be on the lookout for household bills that do not arrive as expected, unexpected denials of credit, and, most importantly, to take advantage of the federal law that entitles every American to a free copy of their credit report each year from each of the three major credit reporting firms. Reviewing those reports is perhaps the most sure-fire way to detect fraudulent activity.

Defend is the final strategy and one that I hope that you will never have to employ as the suggestions in this category speak to what one should do if they are a victim of identity theft. For a full look at the strategies, I suggest that you visit "FTC.com/IDTHEFT."

As we move further into the digital age with the advent of new technologies, criminals will continue to discover new and improved methods to victimize law abiding citizens. These simultaneous advances in technology and crime will force all Texans to be vigilant in safeguarding their personal and financial information. I am confident that the people of our great state are up to the challenge. House Bill 460 is just one weapon to combat identity theft in Texas. I look forward to working with my fellow legislators and law enforcement officials as we study other tools and strategies that will help protect the privacy of our citizens and keep their identities secure.

State Senator Glenn Hegar is serving his third-term in the Texas Legislature and represents the 18th District. He is a farmer who lives in Katy with his wife Dara, and their three children.

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