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VIEWPOINT: Stopping the Rising Tide of Identity-Theft Cases

By Thomas P. DiNapoli

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The era of COVID-19 has brought enormous suffering and persistent uncertainty to New Yorkers. Adding to both the financial and psychological pain of the pandemic is a dramatic increase in identity theft during the past year. 

More than 67,000 complaints of identity theft were reported in New York state during 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). That was a record number, up 85 percent from the previous year and more than four times the figure of a decade earlier.

Whether identity theft involves credit cards, bank accounts, business or personal loans, government benefits, or other types of transactions, it carries significant risk of financial loss to the victim. The U.S. Department of Justice reported $15.1 billion in financial losses nationwide in 2018. Even when there is no direct monetary loss, addressing the consequences of stolen personal information can take months of complicated work with banks, utility companies, medical offices, and others. Sometimes the worst damage comes later, when victims have trouble getting a job, renting an apartment, obtaining a tax benefit, or receiving a loan because of a stolen identity.

New York State has taken numerous steps in recent years to address identity theft, which is punishable by up to seven years in prison, and to require that businesses and state agencies safeguard private personal information. But clearly, more must be done.

Each of us can and should take common-sense steps such as making sure to keep Social Security numbers confidential and being careful to limit use of birth dates and other personal information in online communications — including social media.

Governmental and independent consumer advocates offer a number of other recommendations for individuals.

As policy makers at all levels of government consider additional responses to identity theft, private businesses large and small that collect and maintain personal information must redouble their efforts to safeguard such data. Social-media companies, whose business models rely heavily on personal information, should take steps to promote best practices, such as educating users about ways to keep private information confidential. Working together, we can reverse the rising tide of identity theft.          

Thomas P. DiNapoli is the New York State Comptroller. This article is drawn from the executive summary to a report, titled, “The Increasing Threat of Identity Theft,” which his office issued in May. To check out the full report, visit: https://www.osc.state.ny.us/files/reports/pdf/increasing-threat-of-identity-tBheft.pdf      

 

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