ID Theft Task Force Urges Tough Penalties

By Rachelle Younglai

A U.S. task force created to curb identity theft urged federal agencies on Monday to help protect consumers by ceasing unnecessary use of Social Security numbers.

A plan put forward by the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission also recommended that Congress toughen and expand existing laws to make some identity thieves face a mandatory two-year sentence.

The identity theft prevention task force, chaired by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras, was established last May by the White House. It now includes 17 federal agencies and departments such as the Homeland Security Department and the U.S. Postal Service.

The new plan called for measures requiring the private sector to safeguard personal data and notify consumers when a breach occurs and for creating a national identity theft law enforcement center for coordinating police investigations.

Also it recommended legislative changes to help federal prosecutors charge those who use spyware, which can harvest personal data from a user's computer.

Strong enforcement is key, Majoras said at a press conference called to announce the task force's recommendations.

Gonzales, at the center of a controversy over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, called identity theft a "personal invasion" before fielding questions about his leadership.

The Center for Democracy and Technology said the government's new identity theft plan was a good start but that broader protections are needed for protection of consumer data and personal information.

The recommendations came as officials try to crack down on criminal rings that traffic in stolen documents and sell fabricated drivers licenses, Social Security cards and birth certificates to illegal workers.

The officials did not cite any examples of how government agencies reveal social security numbers unnecessarily.

Last week, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee approved legislation that would fine software distributors and advertisers up to $3 million for downloading spyware without a consumer's consent.

Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.

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Rachelle Younglai, Reuters
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