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Volume 15, Issue 36 ~ September 6 - September 12, 2007


Identity Thieves Lurk in Chesapeake Country

We read with alarm The Sun’s exclusive last weekend about the theft of a computer with personal information of nearly 6,000 patients from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore last month.

Unbelievably, Johns Hopkins waited more than five weeks to tell patients and families that their personal information — including their Social Security numbers — might be in circulation.

Meanwhile, a Department of the Environment laptop with personal information on 10,000 Marylanders was stolen in late August along with the car in which a state employee had unwisely left this sensitive data.

The laptop was password-protected, but that is only slightly reassuring considering that it is easy to find technicians who can retrieve the information from any hard drive.

Why worry about this growing trend? Two words: Identity theft.

Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the U.S., and several hundred thousand people are victims each year at a cost of billions of dollars.

Last year, 4,656 Marylanders reported that they had been identity theft victims, giving us the 11th worst per capita rate in the nation, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

These thefts are insidious crimes in part because seldom are they solved. Suddenly, the culprit who has stolen your Social Security number or purchased it from identity thieves opens up a credit card or two in your name and uses them liberally before you have a clue.

You might end up liable for charges with blemishes on your credit record; almost certainly you will become mired in a morass of bureaucratic paperwork trying to clear your name. But rarely do you find out how it happened, identity theft experts tell us.

We’re troubled at how frequently computer records are lost by state agencies and institutions. Earlier this year, Johns Hopkins Hospital lost computer tapes with information on its employees. St. Mary’s Hospital, in Leonardtown, reported the theft of a laptop with personal information on thousands of patients.

What can you do? Protect your computers like beloved pets and be stingy in handing out your Social Security number and other vital information. Also, pay to have your old hard-drive professionally wiped before you recycle your old computer. Understand that the computer you donate or recycle might end up in Nigeria, identity-theft capital of the world.

The Maryland General Assembly needs to catch up with the times by joining those states that have strengthened laws to protect consumers from identity theft. Some states also are helping victims with laws that require prompt reporting of computer theft, prohibit discrimination against people who are victimized and allow expunging of negative information related to theft.

Thus far, Maryland has passed up opportunities for meaningful legislation, choosing instead to establish the proverbial task force to study the problem. Let’s hope it doesn’t take the theft of a General Assembly computer to get action.

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