ANNAPOLIS – For Kevin Reigrut it started with an innocent-looking letter.
Circuit City was sorry to inform him his credit card application could not be processed because his employment could not be verified.
The problem was Reigrut never applied for a Circuit City credit card.
With that letter, Reigrut, chief of staff for Sen. Andrew Harris, R-Baltimore County, became one of more than 3,400 people in Maryland and 7 million people nationwide targeted by identity thieves each year.
As of Oct. 1, Maryland, which was one of the earliest states in the country to make identity fraud a crime, increased fines for people convicted of the crime from $5,000 to $25,000. With identity theft now the fastest growing crime in the nation, all agree more should be done to combat it, but the solution may need to come at the federal, not the state, level.
A Federal Trade Commission study shows 13.3 people per minute become victims, yet less than 5 percent of perpetrators are ever caught.
Detective Mark Watkins from the Baltimore County Police Department said even those numbers are probably low. Police encourage victims to also report the crime to the FTC, but many people don’t.
Meanwhile, he said, the number of reports in his county has doubled or tripled each year.
According to a recent FTC report, Maryland ranks ninth nationally for the number of identity thefts by population and the District of Columbia ranked first.
Reigrut, 33, was one of the lucky ones in getting notification from the credit card company. Many victims don’t find out about the theft until it?s too late – when they receive a delinquent collection notice, apply for a job or a home loan or are even wrongly arrested for a crime.
“I have been one of the very fortunate ones,” he said, “because I have not suffered any direct financial loss.”
Luck, in the case of identity theft, however, is a relative word.
In the past six years, Reigrut’s identity thieves have set up a bank account, a post office box and a fraudulent company in which he was president. His name was also associated with a car theft ring in Baltimore County.
He has spent hundreds of hours trying to clear his credit and every 90 days he requests a copy of his credit report, just to make sure there is nothing suspicious.
A study by the Identity Theft Resource Center found victims spend an average of 600 hours and around $1,400 in out-of-pocket expenses recovering from the crime.
Jay Foley, co-executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center said Maryland’s laws are about average compared to other states, but they?re going in the right direction.
The biggest thing a state can do is require mandatory reporting by law enforcement, he said.
Delegate Carol Petzold, D-Montgomery, an original sponsor of identity theft laws, said when she first went to the General Assembly five years ago, lawmakers literally didn’t know what she was talking about.
“They said it was already covered under credit card fraud.”
Now she said, legislators have a better understanding of just how detrimental identity theft can be for both individuals and for businesses.
“Identity theft is a cruel crime,” she said “You lose your money, your peace of mind, not to mention what it takes to undo what is done to your credit rating.”
Maryland has passed laws making the crime a felony and allowing police to act without regard for jurisdiction.
Prince George’s County passed one of the nation’s first local laws, in 1999, giving victims access to records and other assistance that could help clear their name.
For now, however, Maryland legislators looking for the federal government to take the lead.
“It would behoove the federal government to take up this issue because the very nature of the crime is that it knows no boundaries,” said Petzold.
However, Foley said the legislation being considered by Congress would make it harder for victims and for law enforcement to catch and convict criminals.
“They mean well,” he said, “but it will really hinder, inhibit and destroy.” Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to prevent someone from stealing your identity.
Reigrut and Petzold both say they have shedders at home and they shred anything that contains their name, address and postal sorting code, but Watkins said that may not be enough.
“It is almost impossible to protect yourself,” Watkins said. “You can take all the standard precautions, use a paper shredder, burn stuff, but the thing I tell people is to get a copy of your credit report at least yearly. Twice a year is even better.”
Getting a credit report is the key to diminishing the impact of the crime ? catch it early and work to undo the damage, he said. Maryland allows residents to obtain a free copy of their report once a year.
“Your information is in so many places out there. We have had problems with medical institutions, credit granting companies, it is out there and all it takes is one unscrupulous person.”
In Reigrut’s case, he believes his identity was stolen when an auto dealership salesman copied his license to test drive a car. For others, it can be a lost wallet or even an envelope from the mail.
There is a bright side to Reigrut’s experience, he said. “Every time I tell a person my story they go home and pull a copy of their credit report, which is great, but the problem is that before they had never even seen their credit report.”