Olympia - Washington's new identity theft law is the toughest in the nation and will give victims access to information and court orders that will help them get their lives and their credit back in order, Attorney General Christine Gregoire said.
Gregoire helped draft the identity theft bill because of the disturbing growth in identity theft cases across the state. Washington ranks in the top ten states for identity theft per capita, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
The bill, signed today by Governor Gary Locke, takes effect July 22. "This law offers real protection to consumers and sends a strong message that Washington is serious about stopping identity theft," he said.
"Identity theft is a crime that can happen to anyone, at any time," Gregoire said. "Identity thieves can steal your money, harm your credit rating or damage one of your most precious possessions-your good name."
Jenni D'Avis of Mill Creek knows first-hand the harm caused by identity theft. Her credit was destroyed when identity thieves racked up $72,000 worth of fraudulent charges - including purchase of a new vehicle - in her name.
Clearing up her credit became a full-time job for D'Avis, who had to sue her creditors and credit reporting agencies to get the charges removed from her records.
"Unless you've been through this, you have no idea how frustrating it is to watch some creep destroy your credit while you struggle to explain the delinquent accounts and bounced checks," D'Avis said. "This new law should simplify things for victims and put the thieves behind bars, where they belong."
Until now, it has been difficult to investigate and prosecute identity theft because the thieves often criss-cross jurisdictions as they rack up thousands of dollars worth of bills.
The state's new identity theft law changes that by establishing jurisdiction for the theft in the county where the victim lives or where any part of the offenses occurs.
The law also raises identity theft from a Class C felony to a Class B felony if the case involves more than $1,500, allowing prosecutors to seek stiffer sentences.
Another innovative section of the law allows an identity theft victim to receive a tangible, legal document in the form of a court order to use in correcting public records damaged by the theft once there is a conviction.
Washington becomes just the third state to allow victims to block any adverse credit reports resulting from identity theft simply by filing the police report with the credit-reporting agency. This is the first law in the country that requires businesses to provide victims with pertinent information related to identity theft-related transactions.
The law also sets limits on the number of times collection agencies can call victims when they have been notified that a series of checks are related to an identity theft, thereby preventing the agencies from hounding them.
Even with the new, tougher law in place, Gregoire cautioned that identity theft remains difficult to recover from. She will publish a brochure with tips and advice for consumers on avoiding identity theft.
"Unfortunately, even the most savvy consumer can't completely outwit a tenacious identity thief," Gregoire said. "But this law gives victims a fighting chance at getting their credit repaired and their lives back on track."
Key Provisions of Identity Theft Bill
Washington's new identity theft law will be the toughest in the nation. The new law:
- Establishes jurisdiction for identity theft either in the county where the victim resides or in the county where any part of the offense takes place. This element clarifies law enforcement jurisdiction from the start.
- Based on the first-degree theft standard, the bill creates a loss threshold of $1,500. Anything at or above that constitutes a Class B felony. Below that threshold, identity theft remains a Class C felony. This adds teeth to current law to deter would-be thieves and help local prosecutors seek stiff sentences.
- Upon conviction of an identity thief, the bill authorizes courts to issue an order for the victim to use in correcting public records damaged by identity theft. This gives victims a tangible, legal document to help correct public records.
- Provides a civil remedy patterned after an Idaho law. This provision allows the victim to block any adverse credit reports resulting from the crime by filing the police report with the credit-reporting agency. (Washington is only the third state, including Idaho and California to adopt such a provision.) The block may be removed in certain circumstances under a good faith and reasonable judgement standard.
- Requires businesses to provide victims information about fraudulent transactions made in their names. Businesses may require proof of identity by the victim. Businesses that refuse to provide information may be subject to actual damages or actuals plus a $1000 penalty for willful violations.
- Prohibits collection agencies from calling identity theft victims multiple times once they have been notified that a series of checks have been stolen or misappropriated. This prevents victims from being inundated with calls for every misused check if they have had a box or book of checks stolen or forged.
- Makes identity theft a crime under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
Tips for Avoiding Identity Theft
- Before revealing any personal information (Social Security number, mother's maiden name or account numbers), find out how it will be used and whether it will be shared with others. Request that it remain confidential.
- Pay attention to your billing cycles. Follow up with creditors if your bills don't arrive on time to make sure an identity thief hasn't changed your billing address to keep you from discovering the phony charges.
- Guard your mail from theft. Deposit outgoing mail in collection boxes or at your local post office. Promptly remove mail after it has been delivered. If you are planning to be away from home, call 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold.
- Put passwords on your credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's name, your birthdate, the last four digits of your Social Security Number, your phone number or a series of consecutive numbers.
- Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry to what you'll actually need.
- Do not give out personal information over the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you have initiated the contact or know who you are dealing with. Identity thieves sometimes pose as bank or even government representatives to get you to reveal personal information. Legitimate organizations that do business with you already have this information and will not ask for it by calling you.
- Tear or shred charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, bank checks and statements, expired charge cards and credit offers you get in the mail.
- Don't carry your Social Security card. Leave it in a secure place. Give the number out only when necessary. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible.
- Order a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies each year. Make sue it is accurate. The law allows credit bureaus to charge you up to $8.50 for a copy of your report. The major credit bureaus are: Equifax, 1-800-685-1111, Experian, 1-888-EXPERIAN, and Trans Union, 1-800-680-7289.
- If you believe you are a victim of identity theft, contact your local law enforcement agency and the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft Hotline, 1-877-IDTHEFT.