Maryland, which ranks 13th in the nation for identity theft complaints, needs new laws that would require consumers to be notified when their personal information is breached and to allow them to restrict access to their credit reports, consumer advocates said yesterday.
Similar proposals failed to pass the General Assembly this year, with some consumer advocates saying that the legislation was introduced too late in the session to build momentum.
Some advocates say Marylanders need more effective tools to stop identity theft from occurring in the first place.
Industry officials favor more consumer education and stiffer penalties for identity thieves.
As part of an effort to bolster support for identity theft legislation in the 2006 General Assembly session, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. held a forum yesterday in Baltimore with consumer advocates, identity theft victims and representatives of the banking, credit card and retail industries.
Identity theft complaints to the Federal Trade Commission have soared from 31,000 in 1999 to 250,000 last year, although the number of cases is believed to be higher, Curran said.
Among the victims is Andre J. Murphy, 22, a student at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. His family discovered the theft about four years ago when he applied for an internship with the Department of Justice.
A government background check found that the teen owed $45,000. His mother, Andrea Murphy, said the theft had been going on for years and the repercussions continue.
"My son has been a victim since he was 16 years old," and he's still getting phone calls from bill collectors, she said.
To stop such crimes, consumers need the ability to "freeze" access to their credit reports to new creditors, consumer advocates said. Without a credit report, creditors won't open new accounts.
When consumers decide they want new credit, they can order that the freeze be lifted for a specific retailer or for a certain period of time. Residents in a dozen states can now do this, usually for a $10 fee.
"The credit report enables the crime," said Evan Hendricks, editor of Privacy Times newsletter. "That's why the freeze legislation is so important. It puts consumers in the driver's seat."
But Edward Steinberg, owner of J.S. Edwards Ltd., a men's clothing store in Baltimore, was concerned that freezing credit reports could weaken retail sales, particularly if the freeze couldn't be quickly lifted.
The other provision being pushed by Curran and consumer advocates is requiring businesses to notify consumers when their personal information is compromised. Twenty-two states require notification, including California.
"We wouldn't know about ChoicePoint if it wasn't for California's law," said Ed Mierzwinski of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocate.
ChoicePoint, which collects information about consumers, early this year disclosed a data breach, which now is expected to have affected at least 162,000 individuals nationwide.
Carla Stone Witzel, a lawyer representing the Maryland Bankers Association, said there are strong federal laws protecting consumers, and banks prefer not to have layers of different state laws.
Industry officials, though, said that harsher penalties are needed for identity thieves.
Andre Murphy agrees.
In his case, he said, the thief received one year's probation. Murphy said that was a light penalty compared with "what I've gone through."