By Vernon M. Keenan, Director, and Marsha O’Neal, Criminal Justice Information System Operations Manager, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Decatur, Georgia
Identity theft is a serious problem that harms millions of citizens each year in the United States. This crime is committed when individuals obtain a victim’s personal identifying information, such as name, social security number, or financial data and then use that information to commit fraud or other crimes. The impact of identity theft on individuals can be devastating. Victims may suffer financial loss, may find their credit and personal reputations ruined, and may even be arrested for crimes they did not commit. The process by which victims can remedy the destructive effects of identity theft can be difficult and stressful. Many victims become very frustrated in their efforts to file a police report. Quite often, police officers face difficulties in taking identity theft reports because the jurisdiction of the crime is unknown or distant from the victim’s business or residence.
The NCIC Files
For years, law enforcement officers have had the capability to enter data on stolen vehicles, firearms, securities, and property into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) files. Police officers routinely use these files, which are invaluable in the identification and recovery of stolen property. In the same context, the NCIC is vitally important in investigating identity theft in that it provides information to law enforcement officers on victims of identity theft and how to distinguish them from the perpetrators of the crime.
More specifically, the NCIC Identity Theft File serves as a means to “flag” stolen identities and recognize impostors when they are encountered by law enforcement. The NCIC Identity Theft File became operational in April 2005 and is designed to aid both police officers and crime victims. The file contains records of identity theft victims with personal descriptive data and other relevant information. These records remain active in the NCIC system for a maximum of five years unless cancelled by the law enforcement agency that originally entered the file.
Creating an NCIC Identity Theft File Record
When victims learn that their identity has been stolen, a report is made to a local law enforcement agency. It is very important that police officers assist victims by taking a report that documents the identity theft. If for some reason departmental policies do not allow a report to be taken in these instances, the police officer should facilitate the involvement of an appropriate law enforcement agency that will assist the victim in filing an official report. Until a police report is generated, victims cannot begin the process to minimize the damages to them or to reclaim their identity.
The local law enforcement agency taking the report collects the information to create what is called a victim profile for the identity theft file. Information needed for the file includes a victim’s name, date of birth, social security number, and type of identity theft, which may include fraudulent use of credit cards, checking or savings accounts, loans, utilities, securities or investments, or government documents or benefits. The victim selects a password that can be readily recalled; this password is included in the victim’s profile. When the victim interacts with the police in the future, police will use the password to verify that the individual with whom they are communicating is in fact the victim and not an identity theft perpetrator. Victims must then sign a consent waiver authorizing the law enforcement agency to enter their victim profile into the NCIC system.
How Does It Work?
When an NCIC Identity Theft File record is created, it is available nationwide to police officers, just as all other NCIC files are. During a subsequent encounter with law enforcement, such as a routine traffic stop, a query into the NCIC system automatically searches the Identity Theft File and, if it is a positive match, generates a response to the inquiring agency. The querying officer will receive a response including the victim profile and password, thereby providing the officer with information necessary to verify whether the person encountered is the actual victim or someone using a false identity. The officer should be aware that an individual should not be arrested or detained based solely on the information provided in the positive response to the initial query. The response should be considered along with additional investigative information and circumstances surrounding the encounter.
Currently, the Identity Theft File consists of approximately 2,600 records entered by 29 states. However, as more departments and states routinely enter reports of identity theft, the tremendous potential of this file to assist in investigations and to protect victims will be realized.
Maximizing Use of the Files
Police executives can strengthen the efforts of their departments to address identity theft by having their officers readily accept identity theft reports from citizens in their communities and then enter the victim information into the NCIC Identity Theft File. These actions are important aspects of law enforcement’s response to identity theft.
Additional information on the NCIC Identity Theft File may be obtained from your state’s NCIC Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) Systems Agency (CSA) or through the Law Enforcement Online (LEO) system of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Further information on LEO can be found on the FBI’s Web site.1■
From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 5, May 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.