FRANKFORT – As a crime, identity theft is anything but new. It dates back to biblical times, when Jacob pretended to be his brother to deceive their father, Isaac.
The term itself was coined in the mid-1960s, but it found new life with the popular rise of the internet. Now, barely a month passes without news of another breach of personal information that often affects millions of Americans.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, identity theft has been the top consumer complaint for the past 15 years. If there is a silver lining for Kentucky, it’s that we rank close to the bottom among the states in this category, with only seven reporting fewer issues on average. Still, the number of all complaints to the FTC from here has doubled since 2009.
In late 2013, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that losses tied to identity theft now top $25 billion a year. About one in 16 adults is a victim, and while about half lose $100 or less, 15 percent lose $1,000 or more.
Children can be targets as well, and what makes this tougher is that they and their families might not discover the crime for years. At the other end of the spectrum, even those who have passed away can still be victimized. Social Security’s records, for example, indicate there are 6.5 million active numbers for people who would have to be 112, far above the three or so dozen worldwide who actually are close to that age.
Over the last few years, identity thieves have focused significantly more on filing false income taxes. The IRS estimates it lost almost $6 billion in 2013 because of fraudulent refunds, and the agency recently said its investigations in this area during the first six months of this year are 30 percent greater than during the same timeframe in 2014.
Kentucky has not been immune to this, either. The Department of Revenue – which now receives nearly 90 percent of state returns electronically, versus 65 percent five years ago – actually had to suspend electronic filing briefly in February because of a wave of false returns filed through TurboTax. To help counter problems like that, Kentucky and a dozen other states are calling on employers to submit W-2s and related forms much earlier for next tax season.
Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation designed to better protect citizens. This lays out exactly what steps businesses, schools and government agencies must take if personal information they have is compromised. That includes contacting those negatively affected as well as consumer credit agencies if the breach is large enough.
State and federal officials alike are also working to help the public better protect themselves from identity theft and fraud. The FTC has a website – www.identitytheft.gov – that is a good starting point for victims; the Kentucky Attorney General’s office does as well at http://ag.ky.gov/.
Kentuckians can check their credit reports for free once a year by visiting www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling 877-322-8228. I recommend taking this step to make sure someone is not using your identity to apply for such things as a credit card.
Some other actions we need to take include keeping our anti-virus software up to date where applicable and avoiding solicitations that seem too good to be true. We also have to be careful not to fall for scams in which thieves pretend to represent financial institutions or government agencies to obtain our personal information.
One mistake can be costly; consider South Carolina, where a single state employee who fell victim to an email scam allowed criminals to access information on three million people and 700,000 businesses. The state ultimately spent up to $30 million providing free credit monitoring and identity theft protection for a year.
While it is regrettable that we have to do even more now to protect our wallets and good name, I encourage you to review any vulnerabilities you might have. Taking a few minutes now can save a lot of headaches down the road.
As always, do not hesitate to contact me if you have any thoughts or concerns about this issue or any other affecting Kentucky. You can write to me at Room 366B, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601; or you can email me at [email protected].
To leave a message for me or for any legislator by phone, please call 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.
I hope to hear from you soon.