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The Alaska Senate failed to pass identity theft protections in the last legislative session. Sadly, this means that Alaska is falling behind other states who have taken common sense steps to protect consumers.
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With new leadership in the Senate, the Legislature should move quickly to provide Alaskans with safeguards against this burgeoning threat.
Identity theft topped the list of nationwide complaints again in 2006, according to the Federal Trade Commission's annual report. Alaska fared better than in 2005, when it ranked No. 1 in fraud complaints per capita, with more than 1,600 complaints across the state.
As Alaskans all across the state have seen, identity thieves use a variety of means - from stealing mail to obtain credit card and bank account information, faking utility bills and government documents and, of course, Internet scams. Increasingly, entities that have our private, financial information are selling or leaking it to identity thieves. Privacy Rights Clearinghouse estimates that more than 100 million data records of U.S. residents have been exposed due to security breaches since February 2005. You can see the list (and it's a long one) at www.privacyrights.org.
All this translates into potential dangers to consumers, their credit and their good names. Alaskans lost an average of $3,847 per case of identity theft in 2006, up from just $1,062 in 2005. According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, the average consumer spends 175 hours clearing their name after an identity theft. You'll probably have a tougher time getting a car loan, home mortgage or credit card because of damage to your credit. A damaged credit record can even prevent you from getting a job or apartment.
That's why Alaskans need protections from identity thieves and why it is so critical that the Legislature take action this session. The two most important measures the Alaska Public Interest Research Group will be pressing for are mandatory notification in the event of a security breach and the ability for consumers to freeze their credit reports.
Responding to the rising tide of identity theft, 34 states have passed security breach notification legislation. Alaska again is trailing in important consumer protections. Twenty-five states have passed security freeze bills, which allow consumers to deny access to their credit report. By freezing one's report, a consumer can prevent further damage from identity thieves. It is common for identity thieves to open new accounts with a consumer's information without that consumer even knowing of the new account. Giving consumers control over their credit report will reduce the damage identity thieves can do.
These protections were part of the bill sponsored by Sens. Gene Therriault and Gretchen Guess in the 2006 session. Therriault again is sponsoring identity theft protections, which have received bipartisan support in the Senate and House. Other provisions in the bill will shield consumers from identity thieves by protecting private information and assuring that victims of identity theft will be treated fairly in their attempts to clear their name.
Though the Alaska Public Interest Research Group was successful is helping to pass the campaign finance reform initiative in August, there is still an enormous amount of money influencing Alaska's political system. Professional lobbyists in Juneau during the 2005 legislative session were paid nearly $14 million according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission. That number jumped to $17 million in 2006.
There was considerable pressure from insurance and financial industry lobbyists to kill the identity theft protection bill in 2006. These corporate interests will be there again this session. Citizens need to exercise their voice and let their legislators know that identity theft protections are important to Alaskan consumers.
Like all theft, identity theft is not just bad for the individuals who suffer from it. It also hurts businesses. According to a 2006 Javelin Strategy and Research 2006 Identity Fraud Survey, co-released with the Better Business Bureau, the one year fraud amount in 2006 rose to $56.6 billion. That is unacceptable, particularly when there are easy steps to take to protect consumers and businesses.
The Alaska Legislature needs to take those steps now.
Steve Cleary is director of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group.