It's about time!
Brazen identity thieves face federal crackdown
Bill would make acts leading up to fraud a crime
Nov 22, 2007
Brett Popplewell in Toronto
Tonda MacCharles in Ottawa
Toronto Star Staff Reporters
Norm Berberich was visiting family in Japan last April when identity thieves raided his mailbox, assumed his identity, established a credit card and wracked up $7,000 worth of debt in his name.
"I came back from a vacation overseas and ... there was a payment due statement for a bank that I don't even bank with," he said.
Reid Morden, former head of Canada's spy agency, has a similar tale. Fraudsters monitoring his mailbox attained his banking information, ordered a new credit card to be delivered to his home, then intercepted it before he picked it out of his mailbox.
In orchestrating the theft, the criminals identified themselves as Morden with the help of his mother's maiden name – a tidbit of otherwise useless information that Morden says was found in his biography in the book Who's Who in Canada.
These and thousands of other cases of identity theft prompted the federal government yesterday to crack down. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson introduced a bill to allow police to target the "preliminary steps" that criminals take in the lead-up to acts of fraud, counterfeit or forgery.
The bill would make it a crime to recklessly or knowingly possess anyone else's personal identity information for the purpose of committing a crime, even before any other crime like credit card fraud is committed.
But the proposed legislation does not require businesses or governments to notify people when there has been a security breach and private information is stolen or lost.
The bill specifically creates three new offences related to "identity theft" that criminalize acts of obtaining, possessing or trafficking in personal information or government-issued identity documents before the data is misused. All carry a maximum five-year jail term.
Nicholson last month cited statistics from the Canadian Council of Better Business Bureaus that said identity theft may cost Canadian consumers, banks and credit card firms, stores and other businesses more than $2 billion annually.
The Canadian justice department also says that in 2006, almost 8,000 victims reported losses of $16 million to PhoneBusters, the Canadian anti-fraud call centre. Many more cases are thought to go unreported.
Representatives of the financial industry applauded the government's move. The fact that millions of Canadians must use and rely on personal identity information daily represents "a gold mine for criminals," said Nancy Hughes Anthony of the Canadian Bankers Association, who joined Nicholson at a news conference and applauded the bill's "concrete steps."
"What is needed is that early intervention to prevent crimes from occurring," said Hughes Anthony.
"I always laugh a bit that it is an offence to possess a bag of burglary tools, but it is not an offence to possess a fistful of other people's credit cards and identity cards. So now that day has come."
New Democrat Joe Comartin (Windsor-Tecumseh) said the bill was a "comprehensive" response to a "difficult issue" that has been raised in committees.
The one concern Comartin raised is how difficult it will be for prosecutors to prove, through "reasonable inference," an offender's future "intent" to commit a crime.
If identity theft could happen to someone as security-conscious as the former head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, is it any wonder it happens to others?
At the time of the theft of Morden's name, a mother's maiden name was the common default security question asked by online and telephone bankers to verify the identity of clients.
"Information that no one would have thought was worth anything to anyone wound up being used for a criminal act," he said.
In Berberich's case, TD Canada Trust dropped the $7,000 incurred on the credit card taken out in his name. But he was left with the inconvenience of having to change his banking information, verify that his credit had not been irreversibly damaged and safeguard his information against future theft.
He now has a locked mailbox and is protective of his vital statistics.
"Just a couple of days after (the identity theft) happened to me, I was returning something to a clerk at Canadian Tire and they were asking for a lot of personal information," he said. "I refused to give it. You never know who's taking down that information, you never know who's listening."
When asked to disclose his age for this article, Berberich declined.
Under the bill, judges would be allowed to order an offender to pay restitution for a victim's out-of-pocket expenses related to getting replacement cards and documents, and correcting their credit history.
Undercover law enforcement personnel who use fake identity documents for covert operations would be exempt from prosecution under the law.
"It comes down to the intention of the individual" in possession of somebody else's personal information, Nicholson told reporters.
Australia, the United States and most American state governments have already passed legislation to protect against identity theft, though most jurisdictions admit it is a difficult offence to define, and often more difficult to enforce.
Nicholson said often many people are involved in collecting personal information, each contributing a small part to the larger criminal operation. He said the bill proposes to give police and prosecutors "tools" to deal with such networks.