MVA could stop fraud in licensing

Mary Harris

March 06, 1992|By Mary Harris

PEOPLE tend to take their driver's licenses for granted, but in recent weeks Marylanders have discovered how easily that little laminated card can be corrupted.

As a result of the Dontay Carter case, the heat has been turned up on the state police and the Motor Vehicle Administration, which issued Mr. Carter a duplicate driver's license in the name of the man he is charged with killing. The MVA felt the lash of the General Assembly earlier this week when a Senate committee penalized top officials by voting to cut their pay.

For the past nine years, I have worked in the banking business as checking accounts coordinator for a large Maryland financial institution. I've become very aware of the growing problem of check fraud. In the past few months, I have dealt with at least a half dozen cases involving fraudulent driver's licenses. Yet W. Marshall Rickert, the MVA administrator, insists the problem is not widespread.

Though details vary, the scenario in a check fraud case is nearly always the same. The checkbook and wallet are stolen. With luck, the victim is able to determine which checks were stolen and put a stop-payment on them quickly, preventing major loss from the account. But then the thief obtains a driver's license with his photograph and the personal information of the victim. ,, The new ID, of course, matches the name on the check; quite often stolen credit cards are used to back up the false identify.

Merchants don't hesitate to take the checks. Ironically, because the stolen credit cards are not actually used to make the purchase, they are not checked against the merchant's list of "hot" cards.

What are we doing wrong that we are allowing this type of crime to continue and to escalate? After all, we have stopped the stolen checks, called in our stolen credit cards, filed a police report, crossed all our t's and dotted all our i's. Yet somebody half our age who looks nothing like us is still out there destroying our credit rating by passing bad checks.

Many banks and merchants belong to some form of check protection agency such as TeleCredit or TeleCheck. These provide information on fraudulent accounts. However, a merchant who gets information from one of these agencies is out of luck if the check in question is drawn on a bank that reports to a different agency. Obviously, it would be better if one centralized agency were used.

However, it would be far more useful to prevent fake ID's from being issued in the first place. Bishop L. Robinson, state secretary of public safety, has suggested that fingerprints be added to licenses as an additional form of identification. But while this is better than doing nothing at all, using fingerprints for identification is very difficult unless one is highly trained in the field. It is also very time consuming, even for a person with a trained eye. Wouldn't it be easier to make better use of information that is already being gathered?

Here's what can be done, cheaply and efficiently:

When a new license is issued, two identical photographs are produced by the camera, only one of which is attached to the license. The second one goes in the trash can. Rather than wasting that second photo, it could be incorporated along with the driver's signature into the MVA record by using an optical scanner to convert it to a digital record. The technology involved is simple -- a scanner passes over the photo and converts the graphic information into digital bits, which can then be used to reproduce the photo graphically on a computer screen or to print it in "hard copy."

Currently, scanners can reproduce pictures with about the same clarity as newspaper photographs. This is more than adequate to produce a reasonable facsimile of the original photograph. Such a combination of photo and signature would make it very difficult for someone to obtain a fraudulent ID. Adding a photo and signature to the permanent record would also be far less likely to offend people than requiring them to be fingerprinted.

The scanners cost about $1,000 each, but only a few would be needed to do the job. This is a far cry from the $200,000 O. James Lighthizer, the state transportation secretary, wants for a year's study of how to solve the identification problem.

Mr. Rickert has said that the current system is "the best until technology becomes available to provide the potential for tightening up the system." Well, the technology's here and there are dozens of firms locally who would be more than happy to show Mr. Rickert how to make it work.

Mary Harris works for the Johns Hopkins Federal Credit Union.

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