Identity theft is not a soft crime

The upper left-hand corner of a Social Security card

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Bill Radke: The Supreme Court did something this week that will make it harder
to kick someone out of the country for stealing an identity. The court ruled you cannot be guilty of "aggravated identity theft" if you didn't know you were using someone else's Social Security number.

Los Angeles Times business columnist David Lazarus is here. David, what's the story behind this decision?

David Lazarus: Well, the Supreme Court was tackling the use of the aggravated identity theft charge by the Bush administration to crackdown on illegal immigrants, essentially raiding plants and saying, if you guys are using Social Security cards of other people, we're going to charge you with identity theft among other things because it would expedite the deportation process. So it was a way to fast-track getting these guys out of the country. The Supreme Court looked at that and said, we don't think that's the exact way the identity theft rule was supposed to be used. And so they said this law will not apply to people who did not quote unquote "knowingly" steal somebody's Social Security Number.

Radke: David, you speak of this news topic with an unusual passion, because you got your identity stolen.

Lazarus: Well exactly. Let's put some context on this -- this is the fastest-growing crime in the country. Roughly 10 million people every year are victimized by identity theft. And in my case, a guy who was an illegal immigrant from Jamaica was living in the Connecticut area, so this was a number of years ago, and according to the police, he pulled a Social Security Number out of the air -- he simply made it up using the three digits for Connecticut as a prefix and then putting all the rest together. Little did he know that he was inventing the number of an investigative reporter, and so down the road, when it turned out that he had been running up bills on nine different credit cards, passing bad checks at Indian casinos, and when his mess made his way into my credit file during a refinance, I then set out to find the guy. Which I did, and working with law enforcement, managed to get him arrested and deported. Under this new ruling, he would not be guilty of aggravated identity theft, because by having pulled my Social out of the air, he did not, quote unquote, "knowingly" steal my Social Security Number.

Radke: And you feel about that how?

Lazarus: I'm a little cheesed off! I find that extraordinary. For a crime of this magnitude, which causes so much damage and so much hassle to the victims -- and I hate using the word victim, but let's face it, there's a lot of them -- anything that takes away law enforcement's tools in its arsenal to crack down on it seems to me a step in the wrong direction. And the notion that my identity thief could have skirted the law because he would have said, "Oh, well, I didn't know it was David's Social Security Number," I find that extraordinary.

Radke: David Lazarus, LA Times business columnist. I hope you feel better now.

Lazarus: I'm feeling a little better.

About the author

Steve Chiotakis was the host of Marketplace Morning Report until January 2012.

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