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July 2006

Wisconsin Acts to Combat Identity Theft

You have no doubt heard that the personal data on 26.5 million military veterans—including names, birth dates, and social security numbers—were stolen from the home of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee who had taken his laptop home. As readers of Consumer Checkpoint already know, this theft follows previous thefts from ChoicePoint, DSW Shoe Warehouse, Lexis/Nexis, and from other companies. The ChoicePoint theft, according to press reports, has led to more than 700 identity theft victims. The victims have had their mailing addresses changed, reportedly by thieves attempting to gain control of credit card offers, bank records, and other financially oriented mail. One man lost nearly $12,000 after identity theft thieves emptied his bank account.

Veterans who see suspicious financial activity with their credit may contact the Veteran’s Administration toll-free at 1-800-333-4636.

Wisconsin state government is stepping forward to more effectively combat identity theft crimes. Our state has long been considered a national leader in combating identity theft. We were the first state in the nation to make identity theft a felony crime and this year saw the Legislature and governor approve three laws that will help ensure state law keeps up with the criminals as much as possible.

First, Senate Bill 164, sponsored by Senator Ted Kanavas (R– Brookfield) requires businesses to notify customers when their personal information has been stolen. This new law ensures companies such as ChoicePoint must notify Wisconsin consumers if a theft of financial information from the company has the potential to harm them. You may recall my April 2005 Consumer Checkpoint column where I argued Wisconsin needed this law because ChoicePoint originally only notified consumers in California of the theft because only California had a law requiring consumer notification. Senator Kanavas’ legislation ensures Wisconsin consumers will be better protected.

Assembly Bill 536, sponsored by State Representatives Louis Molepske (D–Stevens Point) and Mary Williams (R–Medford), prohibits county registers of deeds from recording documents that contain a person’s social security number. This bill is needed because mortgages and deeds filed with the register of deeds often contain personal information, and previous law required public disclosure of these records.

Last but certainly not least, ers’ credit report for a $10 fee. This important legislation brings Wisconsin into a majority of states that allow consumers to control when their credit information is released. (This was the subject of our August 2005 Consumer Checkpoint column.)

Finally, Governor Doyle just announced creation of the new Privacy Protection Office at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection (DATCP). This office will assist local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies with prosecuting identity theft crimes and will educate consumers about identity theft prevention. You can call the new office toll-free at 1-800-422-7128. Governor Doyle also announced he will seek tougher penalties in 2007.

Much is happening here to combat identity theft. I have one recommendation for 2007 as well: creation of a statewide complaint database at DATCP that tracks new types of identity theft so that law enforcement can more timely fight this growing crime.

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