Sun, Feb 20, 2005 - Page 11 News List

Identity theft case could widen to 500,000 people

SECURITY Unknown con artists who had signed up as clients of data-brokering firm ChoicePoint could gain access to confidential data on thousands of Americans


When word first emerged this week that scammers had illegally obtained detailed dossiers on 35,000 people by posing as legitimate customers of ChoicePoint Inc, the data-brokering company portrayed it as a relatively minor criminal case, limited to California.

But by week's end, it was shaping up to be a full-blown scandal with as many as a half million Americans potentially vulnerable to identity theft.

Outraged, attorneys general from 19 US states, consumer advocates and security experts were all demanding federal oversight of a lightly regulated industry that gathers and sells personal data about nearly every adult American.

On Friday, the Los Angeles task force in charge of the criminal investigation confirmed that at least 700 people had their identities stolen during the yearlong scam by still unknown con artists who had signed up as clients of ChoicePoint.

The task force leader, sheriff's lieutenant Robert Costa, said the number of people vulnerable to identity theft in the case could reach 500,000.

That's a much higher number than the latest estimate acknowledged by ChoicePoint, which belatedly sent warning letters to a total of 145,000 people in various states after a chorus of complaints.

The volume of data compromised was so huge that deputies are almost certain that a 41-year-old Nigerian man sentenced on Thursday to 16 months in jail in the scam did not act alone.

The man, Olatunji Oluwatosin, was arrested on Oct. 27 when ChoicePoint faxed him some paperwork at a Kinko's store in a sting operation. He pleaded no contest and did not agree to help authorities in the probe.

An Alpharetta, Georgia-based spinoff from the credit-reporting giant Equifax, ChoicePoint maintains databases that hold 19 billion Social Security numbers, credit and medical histories, motor vehicle registrations, job applications, lawsuits, criminal files, professional licenses and other pieces of sensitive information.

ChoicePoint also owns a DNA analysis lab and facilitates drug testing for employers.

But ChoicePoint and other privately owned aggregators of personal information operate with virtually no federal oversight, and critics say the companies haven't done enough to safeguard their information-rich databases.

Word of the identity theft case got out after ChoicePoint sent warning letters last week to people in California -- the only state with a law requiring disclosure of such security breaches to people whose identities are threatened. But ChoicePoint said it discovered the breach in October, when the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department began investigating one case of identity theft.

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