Stealing Your Life: The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan

My full book review of Stealing Your Life: The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan is on Slashdot

It’s a fallacy that our elected officials take forever to get things done. Two examples where Washington acted with speed are with the National Do Not Call Registry and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. The National Do Not Call Registry was slated to take effect on October 1, 2003, but various marketing associations challenged its legitimacy and even if the FTC had the jurisdiction to enforce it. Notwithstanding, President Bush speedily signed the bill authorizing the no-call list to go into effect in September 2003 and the United State Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the registry in February 2004. 

On June 25, 2002, WorldCom revealed it had overstated its earnings by more than $7 billion by improperly accounting for its operating costs. Senator Paul Sarbanes then introduced Senate Bill 2673 that same day where it passed 97-0 less than three weeks later. The House and Senate formed a Conference Committee to reconcile the differences between Sarbanes's bill and Representative Michael Oxley's bill (HR 3763) and on July 24, 2002, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 was passed." 

The bottom line is that when politicians really want votes and PR, they can act swiftly. The frustration is exacerbated when politicians choose to do nothing when it comes to identity theft. In Stealing Your Life: The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan, Frank Abagnale details the frustration that consumers face (and will face in the years to come) when their identities are stolen, the ease at which the criminals carry out such crimes, and the months and often years of effort required to regain ones identity. 

Abagnale's tenure on the criminal side long ago gives him the advantage that he knows firsthand how criminals think and such an outlook is pervasive throughout the book. Looking at the current state of identity protection, he states that he is personally horrified at how easy identity theft is. In fact, he calls it "a crook's dream come true". The book details incident after incident where criminals and criminal gangs obtained credit in someone else's name with ease.

What makes this worse is that the book shows how we haven't even scratched the surface of the identity theft problem. Everyone, including the FTC agrees that current identity theft figures are quite low, due to the fact that so many cases go unreported or undetected.

The book notes that lenders often miscategorize a good deal of identity theft because it looks like delinquent bills, as opposed to a crime. Only later does the victim realize what has been going on and complains, at which time it becomes apparent that fraud was involved. But by that time, the money has been written off as a credit loss and then appears as negative information on the victim's credit report.

The books 13 chapters are written in an easy to read and compelling style. The early chapters detail the prime causes of what makes identity theft such a problem and astutely notes that a large part of the problem is that financial services companies are conducting business today by doling out credit like candy and do almost nothing to ascertain that people really are who they say they are when applying for credit. In addition, issuers of credit in their haste to rack up more business frequently accept a social security number from an applicant at face value, without demanding proof. The book lists many examples of where children and dead people have been given credit.

In chapter 6, the book lists 20 steps one can take in the hope of preventing identify theft. The author notes that since the punishment for identity theft, and the recovery of stolen goods from identity theft are so low, the only viable source of action is prevention by the individual. All 20 steps are fundamental, from protecting your social security number and examining your financial statements, to using a shredder and more.

Chapter 8 lists one of the more important points of the book, in which Abagnale writes that all credit and personal information should be opt-in based, as opposed to the prevalent opt-out requirement. Such an approach is what one would hope Congress would mandate, but does not have the tenacity to do. The problem is that if a consumer does not opt-out, they are giving the financial institution permission to share their personal information with the hundreds and often thousands of affiliates they share data with.

Companies obviously prefer opt-out, which shifts the burden to the consumer to take action to keep their information from being shared. With opt-in, the burden shifts and the financial services company has to prove that consumers granted their consent to have their personal information shared. National opt-in requirements would significant stem the flow of personal information, which is in part why identity theft is so easy to carry out.

Aside from a glaring error in chapter 12 where Abagnale erroneously writes that true authentication is impossible on the Internet and occasionally hawking companies he has financial dealings with,Stealing Your Life: The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan is an interesting and entertaining book on a subject of the fasting growing crime in the USA. 

With Congress dropping the ball and doing nothing, Abagnale shows that it is up to each individual to take responsibility for protecting their own personal information. Stealing Your Life: The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan is indeed a great place to start such an approach.

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