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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

James B. Comey
Deputy Attorney General, James B. Comey

July 15, 2004

James B. Comey

Good morning. It is great to be here to take your questions about this important legislation.

Jon, from Washington, D.C. writes:
Can you dunk a basketball? If so, why haven't we seen you on the courts in D.C. since becoming Deputy Attorney General?

James B. Comey
I am unable to answer this question because I have been reluctant to test my achilles tendons to determine if I am still able to do so. That also explains why you haven't seen me on the court.

Juan, from Lincoln writes:
Mr. Comey Isn't one of the easiest ways to protect yourself against theft not to use checks or credit cards? I keep a credit card and a checking account -- but whenever possible I use cash. For example, I never use a credit card at a restaurant.

James B. Comey
I wish it were that easy. Unfortunately, so much personal information, including your social security number, is out there and regularly required for all sorts of transactions. Prudent steps like keeping track of credit card receipts and shredding junk mail, checking your bank and credit card records, and regularly checking your credit reports will all help, but there is no guarantee for any of us.

Brooke, from Birmingham, Alabama writes:
Are any efforts being made to curb the use of social security numbers as identification numbers?

My identity was stolen when a student employee from the registrar's office at my alma mater sold my personal information to another student. Because the university used my social security number as a student i.d., that private number was readily available.

When I began calling around to clean up my credit, the first step was always disclosure of my social security number, something I had learned to jealously guard.

It seems that so much of the identity theft problem could be stopped if there were laws against using social security numbers in such a manner.

Thank you for your time and for your efforts in this growing problem.

James B. Comey
As you know, social security numbers are a valuable identifier. I am not aware of any law that currently restricts the ability of a university to request and use a social security number. What I do know is that colleges and universities, along with all legitimate businesses, are becoming much more careful about how they use and protect your information.

David, from Alexandria VA writes:
Will prosecutors use this new law? How soon can we expect to see these stiffer sentences take effect?

James B. Comey
Prosecutors will start using this law immediately because it applies to all identity theft crimes committed from this moment forward. It may take weeks or months for those crooks to be caught and convicted, but when they are sentenced, they will serve an additional two years on top of whatever they get for underlying fraud crimes that they committed using the stolen identity.

robert, from detroit, MI writes:
what is the bill number so I can read the text of what the president is signing today.

James B. Comey
HR 1731.

Troy, from Long Island writes:
How will this legislation affect phishing?

James B. Comey
If the phishing results in someone taking identity information, this law will allow them to be prosecuted for possessing that information with criminal intent. If the phisher uses the information to commit mail fraud, for example, that phisher will get an extra two years in jail because he used stolen identity info.

laura, from US--DC writes:
How can individuals get the assistant they need when they beleive they have been vicitims of identify theft and have notified creditors. If they(creditors) advised you to make a police report but the police or others do not take a report or are not familar with the issue. How should you advise the person and where do you go to proceed on your report?

James B. Comey
Your first stop should be the Federal Trade Commission at FTC.GOV, where there are many helpful tips for dealing with this crime. Your local police should now be very familiar with these crimes, particularly now that almost every state has an identity theft law and now that the media has properly devoted so much attention to this issue.

Tim, from Greenbelt writes:
Does this new statute provide for any additional funding or staff to help fight identity theft? What are the odds that these new provisions will be enforced?

James B. Comey
The odds are 100% that the new law will be enforced because it is a mandatory sentencing enhancement. As for new money, the law authorizes $2,000,000 per year to enhance prosecution of these cases. I should add, however, that until the money is appropriated, it is not in the Department of Justice budget.

Robert, from Phoenix, Arizona writes:
Will there be any provisions or penalties to prevent companies from casually discarding personal information in the trash since this is one of the major sources of the information identity thieves use?

James B. Comey
There aren't any that I am aware of, but companies who want to succeed in the marketplace need to know that consumers care about their information. I believe they are getting this message. I have noticed that banks have begun advertising about their efforts to protect information.

Tom, from Bristol writes:
What are the most common scams out there?

James B. Comey
There aren't any that are most common. Unfortunately, the scope of fraud is limited only by the criminal imagination. What the crooks need is enough information to pretend they are you. If they get that far, they can order merchandise, make purchases, etc., just as you can.

Barbara, from Somerset County writes:
I was outraged when I heard about the AOL employee who sold 90 million email addresses to spammers. AOL and the idiot who stole the email addresses should both be punished severely.

How will this new law affect crimes like this?

James B. Comey
The law directs the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentences, to amend its guidelines to increase punishment for those crimes involving an abuse of position. That is, an insider will pay an additional price for violating his position of trust.

Jim, from Bronx writes:
Are there any incentives or disincentives provided to push banks and credit card companies to more actively prevent credit cardidentity theft? For instance we are swamped in the mail with unsolicited offers of cards that could easily be obtained by people with illegal intentions. Thanks for your attention.

James B. Comey
This is a great question, without an easy answer. Credit card companies must realize that fraud is not just a cost of doing business. If consumers give their business to those companies that are prudent and responsible with personal information, that will help.

Theresa, from Lexington VA writes:
(1) Is there any thought or action being taken to make the account numbers on checks "hidden" because of concerns about individuals using those numbers to gain access to a person's account? I doubt that banks have all of the checks and balances in place to assure that unauthorized persons do not gain access to accounts via using the account numbers. (2) Also, any concerns about the current prevalency of "pay at the pump" and self-administered charges at groceries and other stores. Only once has someone asked for an ID, and I know that I have inadvertently signed the

wrong (my maiden name)name at least once at a store without anyone noticing. Thanks

James B. Comey
If consumers care about these issues, which they do, and give their business to banks and companies that protect their personal information, that will make a difference. I don't have a good answer for you on the gas pump question, unfortunately.

Jim, from Rexburg writes:
The problem with identity theft is that so much of it is committed by insiders. I know there was an insider provision in an earlier version of the bill. Does the final bill have this provision in it? And how stiff is the provision?

James B. Comey
The law directs the Sentencing Commission to increase punishment for those who abuse a position of trust in committing identity theft.

PJ, from Sioux City writes:
If you suspect that you are a victim of Identity theft or identity fraud -- what should you do?

James B. Comey
Check your credit cards and bank accounts for suspicious activity. Then get a copy of your credit report. Call local police and the Federal Trade Commission's identity theft hotline or go to FTC.GOV.

Meredith, from Bethlehem, PA writes:
ID theft is pretty easy to commit. All you need is someone social security number and other personal information. All of which you can find on the Internet. Why not crack down on the companies that sell the personal information?

James B. Comey
There is so much personal information that is legitimately out in this open society that it would be very difficult to "crack down on the companies." What we can do is send a very strong message that people and/or companies that misuse your information to commit crimes will be severely punished.

Patrick, from Indianapolis writes:
What is the Federal government doing to have local police departments more receptive to filing reports when a person is a victim of IDT? When my grandmother was a potential victim when her purse came up missing the local sheriffs department was more concerned with juristiction then filing a report that was needed if IDT actually occurred. This would be a bigger issue if the IDT had occurred in another country which happens frequently.

James B. Comey
We are running training sessions around the country -- in partnership with the Secret Service, Postal Inspectors, and the FTC, among others -- to help local law enforcement understand this issue better and be better prepared to help people like your grandmother. Nearly every state now has an identity theft law and the publicity around this issue has motivated law enforcement at all levels. If the local police can't help you, check at FTC.GOV for additional resources and ideas. In nearly every corner of the country, state and federal officers are forming task forces to address identity theft, which should go a long way to addressing the jurisdictional issues you raise.

James B. Comey
Thank you for the good questions about this important issue. Thanks to people like you, identity theft is being addressed throughout our country. With this new law, crooks are well-advised to think twice before deciding this is an easy crime. In my experience, fraudsters respond to real jail time, which this law will deliver.

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