President Bush today signed into law a bill that provides tougher penalties for identity thieves. The move was in response to evidence the crime has grown more rampant.

The Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act adds a mandatory two-year prison sentence for persons convicted of using stolen personal information or credit card numbers to commit crimes. Those convicted of identity theft to “commit an act of terrorism” will receive and additional five years in prison.

“The crime of identity theft undermines the basic trust on which our economy depends,” Bush said during a White House bill-signing ceremony. “Identity theft harms not only its direct victims, but also many businesses and customers whose confidence is shaken. Like other forms of stealing, identity theft leaves the victim poor and feeling terribly violated.”

Identity theft and its related scams, such as phishing, topped the Federal Trade Commission’s list of concerns this past year. Phishing occurs when fraudsters masquerade as legitimate companies to trick consumers into handing over their personal and financial account information. So far, financial service companies and their consumers have been targeted the most.

In a report released last September, the FTC estimated that nearly 10 million people suffered from some form of identity theft in 2002, resulting in a $50 billion loss overall and $5 billion in out-of-pocket costs to victims.

More than 3 million people discovered that new accounts had been opened and other frauds (e.g., renting an apartment or home or obtaining medical care or employment) had been committed in their name.

The bill signed today also establishes a new crime category, “aggravated identity theft,” defined as the use of a stolen identity to commit certain crimes.

Bush noted the loss to victims of identity theft goes beyond dollars. A thief can destroy the victim’s financial reputation and repairing the damage can take months or years.

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to jessica@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 133.

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