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Unfortunately it is not enough to do all that you can to protect the data that, in the hands (or computer) of an identity thief, can lead to trouble for you because you are only as safe as the weakest security programs of the companies and agencies with which you do business.

A Towering Problem

It is important to be sure that any company with which you do business protects your personal information; however, sometimes the assurances of those companies mean little. The FTC recently brought a complaint against Tower Records. The company claimed that it used state-ofthe-art technology to safeguard the personal information of customers. However, the security system it used permitted online users of its Web site to access personal information about other Tower customers. According to the FTC, this flaw in the security system was easy to fix, but Tower failed to do so until it was compelled by a formal complaint of the FTC that was settled in April 2004. In this case, as with all FTC settlements, Tower did not admit that it did anything wrong yet agreed not to do it again.

We Regret to Inform You

In March 2004, GMAC notified 200,000 of its customers that their personal information might have been compromised (a euphemism for “possibly stolen”) following the theft of two laptop computers used by GMAC employees that were stolen from an employee’s car. Although the data stored on the particular laptop computers was protected by password-access technology, the data itself was not encrypted as a further prudent security measure. The data itself was extremely sensitive material, including names, addresses, birth dates, and Social Security numbers of GMAC customers. This security breach is not uncommon in an era when employees may take work home on their laptops.

It is not even just the companies with which you do business that should concern you. It is also the companies with which they do business and with which they might share your personal information. In 2003, the Bank of Rhode Island contacted 43,000 of its customers to warn them that their personal information, including Social Security numbers, might have been compromised. A laptop computer used by an employee of Fiserv, Inc., a company with which the Bank of Rhode Island did business, was stolen. This laptop computer contained sensitive personal information about Bank of Rhode Island customers.

California, a state that has often been the leader in identity protection laws, has had a law since 2003 that requires any business that has had a breach of its computer security to notify its customers. Similar laws are expected to be passed in other states, although it would be even better if companies paid greater attention to preventing their systems from being improperly accessed in the first place.

Keys to Identity Theft

It was bad enough that two Wells Fargo employees left the car keys in the ignition of their unlocked rental car during a stop at a Missouri gas station convenience store while they went inside in February 2004. When they came out, their Ford Mustang was gone. But also gone with the car was the laptop computer that they had left unattended in the trunk of the car. The computer contained the names, addresses, and Social Security numbers of thousands of Wells Fargo mortgage customers. The car was retrieved less than a week later, but the computer was gone. A password was required to access the personal information stored on the computer, but the simplicity of that task to a computer-savvy identity thief left Wells Fargo’s mortgage customers in substantial danger of identity theft.

If You Can’t Trust Your Lawyer, Whom Can You Trust?

If you can’t trust your own lawyer, whom can you trust? My grandmother, the same one who used to say that she could keep secrets but that the people to whom she told them could not, used to refer to me as her grandson “the liar.” I used to try to correct her, telling her that the name of my profession was pronounced “lawyer,” to which she always responded, “Don’t correct me, I know what I’m saying.” I think my grandmother was kidding. I hope my grandmother was kidding, but many people do consider lawyers just a bunch of liars. The case of Iric Vonn Spears, unfortunately, does little to dispel that impression. Iric Vonn Spears was an attorney who, having access to the personal information of his client Reginald Dalton, used that information to steal Dalton’s identity and buy a home and open credit card accounts. The house of cards tumbled when the real Dalton was contacted by the bank that held the mortgage on the home purchased by Iric Vonn Spears using the name of Reginald Dalton, telling him that the mortgage was being fore-closed. Iric Vonn Spears was convicted of grand theft, mortgage fraud, identity fraud, and forgery. He was sentenced to ten years in prison.

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