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Encryption Blog

Dept of Justice Fails to Make Identity Theft a Priority

Created: 05 Apr 2010 • Updated: 05 Nov 2012
Doug McLean's picture
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That headline is not my assertion, but the conclusion reached by the Department of Justice itself. More specifically it's the conclusion of a report by the Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The OIG's charter as stated on its website is below.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducts independent investigations, audits, inspections, and special reviews of United States Department of Justice personnel and programs to detect and deter waste, fraud, abuse, and misconduct, and to promote integrity, economy, efficiency, and effectiveness in Department of Justice operations.

Typically, the OIG's reports review the finances and activities of each of the Department's nine bureaus.  This particular report, however, reviews the entire Department of Justice's activities around identity theft since President Bush created the Identity Theft Task Force in May 2006. The report notes that identity theft continues to be a growing problem that victimized more than 10 million Americans in 2008 (the last year for which any data is available).

Given this trend, you'd think the U.S. Department of Justice would have made significant progress in addressing this high growth crime. In fact, just the opposite is true. The data and conclusions in the report about the Department's efforts to combat identity theft are truly disturbing. Some of the issues noted include:

  • No work on a strategy to combat identity theft has been done since the President's task force issued its initial report in May 2007
  • Despite the growth in identity theft, the number of defendants charged and convictions obtained appears to have declined from 2008 to 2009. I say "appears to" because the data collected on identity theft prosecutions is so poor, not even the Department itself puts much faith in it.
  • The Department does not collect sufficient data on the frequency and nature of identity theft.  What little reporting it does do occurs very slowly. The results of the Justice's 2006 identity theft survey are not expected to be released until this coming summer.
  • There is currently a consistent lack of leadership and accountability on identity theft issues across all bureaus within the Department of Justice including the two you'd like to believe would be leading the battle against identity theft; the FBI and the Criminal Division responsible for prosecuting Federal crimes.

It's not a pretty picture. It does, however, explain at least part of the reason why identity theft is growing so quickly. Besides being a relatively easy crime to commit, the odds of getting caught, let alone prosecuted, at least in the U.S. are very small. This situation obviously won't change until something fundamental in our approach to addressing the problem does. We can only hope the OIG's report spurs that change.

In the meantime, it is more important than ever that consumers do what they can to protect themselves from the criminal gangs that now perpetrate most identity thefts. PGP Corporation's CEO, Phil Dunkelberger, wrote a pair of blogs on exactly how to do this in late 2006. While it's been more than three years, the recommendations are still valid.  The first piece focuses on how to protect yourself from old style offline identity theft and the second piece on how to protect yourself from online theft. The only thing I will add is that if you can only do one thing, order your credit report frozen. It's easy and either cheap or free depending on where you live. MSNBC.com has nice guide and all the links you'll need to freeze your credit report.