TV Cop Puts eBay on Trial

Victims of identity fraud got a high-profile spokesperson this week when veteran actor Jerry Orbach, best known as detective Lennie Briscoe on NBC’s “Law and Order,” sued online auctioneer eBay for posting his social security number on the Web.

The suit, filed in Manhattan federal court, alleges that eBay violated Orbach’s rights when the site began offering two of the actor’s 1958 employment contracts for auction.

Although most identity thieves have to do a little digging to ferret out social security numbers and other identifying information, eBay allegedly made it easy by posting the confidential data. Orbach said the auction giant did not get permission to display his name and social security number.

Although the suit does not specify damages, it does claim that Orbach has been exposed to “identity theft” and that his credit-worthiness could be affected.

Growing Problem

Orbach’s case spotlights the growing problem of identity theft. The Internet, according to many experts, makes it easy for crooks to find and use personal information. According to Norman A. Willox, Jr., Chief Executive Officer of the National Fraud Center, “The computer, and more recently the Internet, have brought identity theft to a much more insidious level.”

Willox added, “They have allowed the identity thief to obtain personal identifiers of multiple persons quicker; to access higher quality fake identification tools (drivers licenses, birth certificates, social security cards, etc.) and, through e-commerce, to render the credit transaction completely impersonal.”

“The potential harm caused by an identity thief using the Internet is exponential,” Willox said.

Thieves like the Internet because it gives them access to information and provides an anonymous way to make purchases. No longer do identity thieves have to stand in line to see if falsely obtained credit cards will be accepted by store clerks — they can let their fingers do the shopping online. Also, if a credit card gets cancelled, it is easy to obtain another one in another name.

Who Are the Victims?

As Orbach’s suit shows, identity fraud can strike anywhere. At a summit last week in Washington, D.C., victims of identity theft shared their stories. Most were not even aware that someone else was using their name until they went to make a big-ticket purchase and found black marks on their credit.

Even the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which acts as the federal government’s clearinghouse on identify theft, is not immune. Robert Pitofsky told a conference last week that he has fallen victim to credit card misuse.

In testimony before the Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government Information of the Senate Judiciary Committee, FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Jodie Bernstein said, “For victims of identity theft, the costs can be significant and long-lasting. Identity thieves can run up debts in the tens of thousands of dollars under their victims’ names. Even where the individual consumer is not legally liable for these debts, the consequences to the consumer are often considerable.”

The other victims are the e-tailers who must bear the bulk of the financial burden. Just recently, online travel site Expedia was forced to swallow between $4 and $6 million (US$) in fraudulent charges.

Stopping the Thieves

Most experts agree that stopping the problem requires the cooperation of law enforcement, credit bureaus and merchants.

Possible actions would include requiring customers to enter PIN numbers when making purchases online, using digital signatures to verify online purchases, and using biometrics (finger prints or retinal scans) to verify an individual’s identity.

Currently, credit card bureaus rely on “after the fact” prevention by placing fraud alerts in customer files after they have already been victimized by identity theft.

However, according to Bernstein, some identity thieves have been able to open new accounts because fraud alerts were not picked up by credit agencies, or because creditors failed to take sufficient precautions to verify the legitimacy of applicants despite fraud alerts.

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