Picking up the Pieces

Identity theft victims in Ohio now have help putting their lives back together.

by / April 27, 2005
Identity theft victims in Ohio need no longer feel like they have nowhere to turn. Ohio's Identity Theft Verification Passport program gives victims a biometric card that verifies their identity, while providing the information and assistance needed to rehabilitate their credit.

The card contains a digital photograph, which is also stored in a secure database with other biometric information -- including a digital signature and a digital thumbprint -- that offers conclusive proof of the cardholder's identity. The card allows victims to begin rehabilitating their credit and gives them one place to start, rather than having to try to prove their identity everywhere they go.

The program was funded through a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and developed from a partnership between the Ohio Attorney General's Office and the National Notary Association (NNA).

"Ohio won a grant to develop this program and we had already developed this technology, so it was a natural fit," said Rich Hansberger, director of eNotarization for the NNA. "We were able to, within six weeks, get an application up and running for them. We were pleased to grant them full rights to the application we developed, so it's theirs now."

Passport to Peace of Mind
For a couple of years, the DOJ has offered grants for unique identifiers that victims can carry to prove their identity, but most implementations have been paper based. The thrust behind disbursing the grant money was to fund a way for victims to get more information about identity theft, and enhance victims' ability to prove who they are and rehabilitate their credit.

"Ohio is definitely using technology in an innovative way to provide a Web application that allows Ohio law enforcement to capture this thumb print signature, photograph and all the particulars of the victim, and centralize them at an Attorney General database," Hansberger said, adding that it can be easily accessed to verify victims' identities.

Identity theft victims previously had nowhere to go but to the police. But beyond investigating the initial crime and trying to apprehend suspects, the police had no way to help victims rebuild their credit. The Passport program gives law enforcement and victims tools to deal with the problem quickly and efficiently, and frees law enforcement to catch perpetrators.

The Attorney General's Office created an 800 number victims can call for information or advice about identity theft, and police provide a victim's assistance kit to every victim. The kit supplies victims with information on how to rebuild credit and the names of the three credit bureaus, which can help.

"One thing it does for law enforcement is relieve some of the victim's assistance responsibility from law enforcement, freeing them up to focus on catching the offender," said Jonathan Bowman, senior deputy attorney general of Crime Victim Services. "The program is information based. We don't provide a victim with a card and say, 'Have a nice day.' We're providing them with information that will further help them rehabilitate their lives."

Bowman said the program helps police get victims on the road to rehabilitating their credit. "You can imagine all the frustration and all the things that come with [identity theft]," he said. "They have a lot of questions and concerns, and this program provides law enforcement with a valuable tool they can get to the victims."

When the victim goes to the police and reports a case of identity theft, the rehabilitation process begins immediately. Police take pertinent information, including the biometric data, and submit it to the Attorney General's Office as part of an application on a secure Web site called the Ohio Law Enforcement Gateway. The data is then stored in a secure database, which is accessible to the Attorney General's Office and law enforcement officers statewide.

Ten or 12 pieces of identification are collected about the victim, including eye color, height and weight, and stored in the database, said Hansberger.

The Attorney General's Office can view the information immediately, confirm it and send a request for a Passport card to Viisage, a specialist in identity verification solutions, which then produces the photo ID card. The card is activated when the victim calls an activation number from home, similar to the process used to activate credit cards.

"When the victim's credit is questioned, when the victim is questioned by law enforcement, or whenever the victim needs to demonstrate he's had his identity stolen, the passport card can demonstrate that," Bowman said. "If [the victim is] showing the information to another law enforcement officer, for example, law enforcement has the ability to go pull the information up from the database, and has the fingerprint and the signature there to help verify that the person is who they say they are."

The application also prevents duplicate entries of the victim's information -- if someone attempts to use the victim's driver's license number, for example, police will be alerted.

National Model
The DOJ will review the program in June and conduct a feasibility study to determine its potential to be used nationally, the NNA's Hansberger said.

"This passport is designed to provide the Attorney General a better method of verifying the victim and proving to the credit bureau or bank that, yes, we have this police report, you can trust that the victim has sufficiently reported this crime, and we are investigating or have resolved the crime," he said. "It's kind of interesting. I guess the passport can take different forms in different states, so they kind of left it up to the states,"

Most states went with a paper-based system. The biometric signature used in the Passport system is unique in that it captures a three-dimensional signature -- the signature is identified by time, pressure and speed of the person writing it.

"The whole premise is that these can be used for forensic analysis at any time," Hansberger said. "In the notary world, what typically happens is when a transaction is questioned, a judge immediately subpoenas the journal and has the signer's signature. Then the signer is asked to sign again, and the two signatures are compared physically."

Now the two are compared electronically.

So far around 50 identity theft victims have used the system, and Hansberger said what's pleasing so far is that police, which really had no means to deal with the problem before, can now help victims and get a leg up on the investigation.

"We still have a lot of work to do," he said. "We need to work on getting the full cooperation of all the credit bureaus. They offer recovery services when your identity is stolen and your credit is abused. We're in the process of trying to coordinate with all of them."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor