By Adam Levin
When it comes to protecting our privacy, our data, and consumers from identity theft; government leaders, particularly those in our nation’s capital, have been as effective as the U.S. men’s soccer team at winning Olympic medals. We haven’t captured one since our bronze and silver twofer in 1904.
Similarly, for over a decade, American politicians have tended to treat identity theft, privacy and security as issues best handled by their successors. Whether it is the sophistication of the crime or fear of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Bankers Association, their abysmal record shows up in the headlines nearly every week, as cyber criminals, hacktivists and identity thieves pull off caper after caper with no foul calls and, in some cases, active assistance from the refs.
Lately, however, a precious few politicians have at long last sprinted ahead and taken some shots on goal against the bad guys. As Teddy Roosevelt would say, they are in the arena. They’re competing. They are making some awesome plays. These players have become deadly serious, organizing special units to focus on the crime and throwing perpetrators in prison for a long time.
So let’s welcome the best of the best to the podium. These folks have proven they have the chutzpah to challenge super-powerful opponents, protect consumers and help create a level playing field on which honest companies can compete fairly. And the winners are:
Bronze: Lisa Madigan, Attorney General of the State of Illinois
Lisa Madigan was among the first elected officials in the nation to take the threat of identity theft seriously. ChoicePoint was a data aggregation company that performed identity verification services for companies and government agencies. It was infiltrated in 2004 by identity thieves, who fraudulently gained access to consumer data for a period of time by posing as legitimate businesses. The company refused to notify most victims, however. At that time, the only state in the nation with a breach notification law was California, so Madigan successfully rallied 43 other state law enforcement leaders to force ChoicePoint to notify all of its victims nationwide.
Since then, Attorney General Madigan has continued to lead the way, showing other states how to fight identity theft and how to respond when big data breaches put people at risk.
In 2006, she created the nation’s first Identity Theft Hotline (a tool that actually helped people), and she is a vigorous advocate for financial literacy, producing some of the most in-depth, helpful guides in the country to help consumers protect themselves from ID theft and recover once they’ve become victims.
And Madigan has kept the pressure on. She helped lead the 35-state settlement with LifeLock to prevent the company from making misleading advertising statements about protecting people from identity theft. When it was revealed that a giant breach at T.J. Maxx stores resulted in the loss of more than 45 million shoppers’ payment card information, Ms. Madigan was one of the first law enforcement officials to respond, sounding the alarm in Illinois media outlets and giving consumers advice on how to respond.
Last month alone, she won guilty pleas in two payment card fraud-related identity theft cases. In one, the defendants admitted to rigging Chicago-area ATM machines to skim consumers’ bank account and PINs, gaining access to millions of dollars’ worth of bank account holdings. Then she won another guilty plea from the ringleader of an identity theft ring for who skimmed customers’ credit cards at various Chicago attractions, including Wrigley Field.
Lisa Madigan, for your trailblazing efforts to protect citizens from identity theft, we hereby bestow on you the Bronze Medal in Identity Theft Protection.
Silver: Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General of the State of California
Since then, Harris has not forgotten that voters care about identity theft. Just like Elliott Spitzer used his position as New York’s attorney general to fight fraud in the insurance and securities industries, Harris’s job as the top state lawyer in California gives her tremendous power to protect all Americans from Silicon Valley firms, who are in the midst of a Gold Rush fueled by their ability to gather, process and analyze terabytes of Internet users’ private information, providing advertisers with a behavioral marketing blueprint second to none.
Judiciously using her power, Harris “encouraged” three of the largest online dating sites to weed out potential members who have been convicted of identity theft. Likewise, she forced the world’s largest apps companies—including Amazon, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft—into a tough compromise, mandating that they develop and implement privacy policies for all their apps.
In December she established an eCrime unit to prosecute identity thieves and cyber criminals. Seven months later she created an innovative Privacy Enforcement and Protection Unit, which “will police the privacy practices of individuals and organizations to hold accountable those who misuse technology to invade the privacy of others,” Harris said in a press release.
These units already have started to protect people around the world. Investigations by the eCrime unit led to a four-year prison term for a man who used stolen identities to steal indecent online pictures and videos and blackmail victims across 17 states and the United Kingdom.
“California has a unique commitment to protecting the privacy of our residents.” Kamala said. “Our constitution directly guarantees a right to privacy, and we will defend it.”
Kamala Harris, for appreciating your unique opportunity to protect Americans from identity theft, and your efficient and unequivocal use of that power, we hereby present you the Silver Medal in Identity Theft Protection.
Gold: Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York
Preet Bharara has a number of weapons in his arsenal against identity theft. As the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Bharara can bring the full weight of federal law enforcement to bear when prosecuting cybercriminals. But as the top federal prosecutor in New York City, Bharara also enjoys a bigger bully pulpit than most.
And lately, he’s been using that platform to great effect. At speaking engagements around the country, he described a conversation he had recently with a board member of a major Internet firm, who sheepishly admitted that his company’s board has not spent even one minute discussing cyber security.
“Can you imagine?” Bharara said incredulously to a group of donors at a fundraiser for the Police Athletic League.
Bharara made waves with his Op-Ed in The New York Times in June chastising business leaders for not taking the cybercrime threat seriously enough. While bank tellers are trained to immediately report any traditional robbery “by a masked criminal wielding a gun and a note,” Bharara wrote, the same banks sometimes wait weeks or even months to report cybercrimes “for fear of exposing proprietary information.” Some don’t report electronic crimes at all.
Bharara offered business leaders a carrot, since his office can investigate such crimes without disrupting daily operations or jeopardizing sensitive data. He also flashed the stick, if ever so subtly, that his office might hold top executives accountable for identity theft losses. “Every member of a board or executive suite is duty bound to protect the institution against material risk, whether they currently possess particular expertise or not,” Bharara wrote.
The U.S. attorney backs up his tough talk with tough action. He busted the largest single Medicare fraud scheme ever, involving a gang of 44 people who pilfered more than $35 million by stealing the identities of thousands of patients and doctors, and filing medical claims for bogus procedures at 118 fake health clinics in 25 states. Bharara also was a major player in Operation Card Shop, a federal operation that captured two dozen top Internet thieves from around the world by creating a fake online social network for hackers to trade private data, as well as malware, spyware and tips. The operation was innovative and hugely successful, both in its technological sophistication and the cooperation it fostered between law enforcement agencies in 13 countries. ”The coordinated law enforcement actions taken by an unprecedented number of countries around the world today demonstrate that hackers and fraudsters cannot count on being able to prowl the Internet in anonymity and with impunity, even across national boundaries,” Bharara said in a press release.
By combining public relations savvy, cutting-edge investigative techniques and old-fashioned shoe leather police work, Preet Bharara is one of the best federal lawmen in America when it comes to fighting identity theft. Mr. Bharara, we hereby present to you the Gold Medal in Identity Theft Protection.
Adam Levin Chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. Adam’s experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit. Reach Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of flickr.
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