‘Anyone can be a target’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Last week, the Demopolis Police Department received three reports of identity theft.

The rising numbers would seem like a rise in the trend, but Demopolis Public Safety Director Jeff Manuel said the reports are a positive. Manuel said the reports do not signify a rise in crimes; they are an example of people stepping forward to do something about it.

“I think that people are reporting it more,” Manuel said. “This is something that has been going on for a long time, but I think people are realizing what they need to do to report it.”

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The recent passage of a bill to protect Alabama citizens from identity theft brought a lot of attention to the problem. Two weeks ago, legislation from Alabama Attorney General Troy King led to the passage of Senate Bill 68 and House Bill 223 to toughen the laws of identity theft. King said a change was necessary to protect identity theft victims because anyone can be a victim.

“People ask, what does and identity theft victim look like?” King said. “Simply put, they look like any one of us. Theirs is the face of Alabama. Anyone can be target, and anyone can be a victim.”

One of the changes with the new legislation is the increase in the statute of limitations for both criminal and civil actions to seven years, This is important, Manuel said, because victims of identity theft may not discover the theft until they apply for a loan or other credit transactions. The best thing to do, Manuel said, is get a credit report once a year and report suspicious activity immediately.

“If you wait too long to report it and someone has a credit card in your name, you may not know it until you go to buy a house,” Manuel said. “Then you have real problems.”

The way criminals are dealt with was another major change. The amount stolen as a result of identity theft will no longer determine the punishment under the new law. Previously, a first offense of identity theft that did not result in more than $500 of financial loss to the victim was only a misdemeanor. Under the new law, all instances of identity theft will become a class C felony.

In many instances, Manuel said, the financial loss taken directly by the consumer is limited by federal protections, which leave the financial institutions bearing a large burden. This often comes back around in the form of higher prices.

“People do these kinds of things and we are the ones stuck paying for it,” Manuel said. “If people don’t report it, society pays for the things they purchase through higher prices.”

The other change from the new law extends the remedy of a court order to correct fraudulent information on public and private records. If the court makes a finding that identity theft was involved – even if the defendant was actually convicted of a crime other than identity theft – the court could issue an order for records to be corrected.

Manuel said his department is more than happy to investigate any incident, whether a crime is committed or not. It is always better, he said, to be safe than sorry.

“We encourage people to call us if they think they have a problem,” Manuel said. “It is much easier for us to investigate and find out there isn’t a problem than it is for them to have a problem, not report it and suffer the consequences.”