James P. Freeman: In Mass., too little focus on identity theft

“Somebody stepped inside your soul

Little by little they robbed and stole

Till someone else was in control”

-- U2, “The Troubles”


With supporters of efforts to contain climate disruption fond of fomenting “denier” to those who believe such priorities are misplaced, the same characterization – denial – may be made of progressives who believe that the searing rays of the sun pose a greater imminent threat to ordinary citizens than the ghostly goblins of identity theft.

Identity theft – the unauthorized use of personal information to defraud or commit crimes – is the fastest growing crime in America and is the number one complaint of American consumers, reports the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Disturbingly pervasive, every 79 seconds a thief steals someone’s identity. One of every 23 consumers was a victim last year and 27 million Americans were preyed upon in the past five years.

The U.S. Justice  Department's Bureau of Statistics reveals that less than 1 in 10 report the incidents to police, which has the unintended effect of underestimating the extent of such widespread malfeasance. Just three years ago, direct and indirect losses totaled a staggering $24.7 billion with a mean loss pegged at $2,183 per individual.

In 1998, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, officially making the illicit activity a federal crime, updating what were known as “false personation acts.” The law established the FTC as the federal government’s  central point of contact for reporting instances of identity theft by creating data clearing house; it also increased criminal penalties and closed legal loopholes.

But for those who marvel at the notion that too much government intervention is still too little, this crime wave continues unabated as government’s involvement grows. More than 755 state and local law-enforcement agencies from 47 states now participate in “assistance,” according to the Internal Revenue Service.

Helios and Hephaestus, ancient deities of sun and technology, would have a difficult time penetrating this byzantine apparatus – more of a loosely autonomous confederation – of authorities tasked with raising awareness, administering regulations, enforcing laws, and prosecuting these crimes.

And given today’s vast administrative state with competing – not necessarily complementing – layers of bureaucracy, the record is decidedly mixed in preventing theft, mitigating losses and delivering justice. It suggests a dilution of efforts and diminution of efficacy that demands greater focus, coordination and progress.

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security communicates on its Web site that victims spend “between 30-60 hours of their time” and “approximately $1,000 of their own money clearing up the problem.”

Of the 2.58 million consumer complaints filed with the FTC last year, those related to identity theft numbered 335,400. With excruciating irony, most complaints involve the government itself. From 2011 through October 2014, the IRS thwarted 19 million suspicious returns and protected more than $63 billion in fraudulent refunds, an astonishing disclosure. But two years ago the IRS paid $5.8 billion in fraudulent refunds.

Inasmuch as Florida was the leader in rates of identity theft (186.3 complaints per 100,000 persons) among states, Massachusetts ranked 27th (63.3 per 100,000) in 2013, according to the Consumer Sentinel Network.

Only in Massachusetts do idiotic policies and identity politics trump identity theft.

It is now a violation of the law for not having headlights on while windshield wipers are in use. Another example of legislators codifying common-sense behaviors (or lack thereof) into criminal acts. It underscores the stark  dangers involved in  misplacing priorities and redirecting precious resources from countering truly criminal activity.

And among the first official undertakings by the new attorney general of Massachusetts, Maura Healey, was a social media “campaign.” It involved the collection of testimonials from same-sex couples for an amicus brief that was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, supporting national recognition of gay marriage. However laudable, such time and expense amount to a political lagniappe but not a legal imperative.

Healey’s office has already surrendered authority. On mass.gov/ago, victims are forewarned: “You should be aware that not all identity theft complaints can or will be investigated.” However, not to be discouraged, by filing a written report, “You make it possible for law enforcement offices to spot trends and patterns and to identify the prevalence of identity theft.”

Last year, The Boston Globe noted that 1.2 million people in the commonwealth had personal information and financial data compromised in 2013. This past February, a “data breach” – a benign euphemism betraying seriousness – occurred at insurer Anthem, compromising personal information of 78.8 million Americans. One million of those reside in Massachusetts.

These people will likely not be accorded a vigorous campaign. What is unsettling is that Healey and fellow progressives believe they can effectively combat climate disruption to their satisfaction but not identity theft.

James P. Freeman is a Cape Cod based writer