Comments: Identity Theft - the American Disease

In my eyes, Identity Theft is much easier if the only identificator that is commonplace, namely the SSN, is used for authentication as well.

This definitely is a benefit of a national identity card. I don't want to incite a flame war about the possible abuse of such a card and the reason why most US citizens don't like the idea - but it is a single document that is somewhat hard to fake and it looks exactly the same all over the country (in contrast to US driver's licences). Over here it has photograph on it and it states some biometrical data (like height and eye color) that are hard to fake. Since there is only one issuing authority the effect is somewhat of a PKI. It's harder to get such a document than it is to dumpster dive, get pieces of a victim's life and abuse them.

As a matter of fact, identity theft plays no role over here whatsoever. I called our federal criminal authority and asked them about it.

Posted by Axel at May 27, 2004 05:27 AM

> Identity theft is a uniquely American problem. It reflects the massive
> - in comparison to other countries - use of data and credit to manage
> Americans' lives. Other countries would do well to follow the
> experiences, as "what happens there, comes here."

Hmm... to the contrary I have assumed, the US will gravitate towards better ways.

All of the advanced cultures learn from other cultures. What they are able to absorb at any given time, varies a lot. People may embrace some things, be repelled by others. Our media and institutions sometimes block it, or sometimes, accelerate it.

The dominant population in the US are the white patriarchic, christian population. These people have demonstrate, at least since 1918, very large organizational forms. This was not unique; the british, french, germans did this too. As did the japanese with their trading companies and still do, have some of the largest effectively operating organziations on earth.

What is unique in the US is that nobody has ever come in and completely destroyed the place, therefore the US has ridiculously vulnerable infrastructures both physically and in its social organization. Today only the Japanese have such vulnerable money and ID systems but they have such a homogeneous population, foreigners can't really exploit it. And they have millions in their unofficial police force (the yakuza and the rightist organizations) to maintain order.

The US has its own peculiar adaptations; its police industry thrives on crime and has no real intention of reducing it, which would put itself out of business. So it goes on. Now we will have a federal, homeland security (sic) organization. More pork, more patronage equals more crime.


Posted by Todd at June 7, 2004 06:55 AM


the reason Identity Theft is not prevalent outside America is that it is not worthwhile. That's the whole point - Identity is the root handle on a huge credit availability that simply doesn't exist in other countries. Getting hold of an American's identity is very valuable. How much is yours or mine worth, in credit terms?

Compared to which, the existence of SSNs or other tokens is a side issue, that's just a practical problem of costs for the identity thief. The starting point must be "how much is it worth?" which allows working the budget to cover the costs of stealing the identity.


Posted by Iang at June 7, 2004 06:59 AM

Ian, can you elaborate on that? I can't as of yet see why the credit market should be substantially bigger in the US than in other countries.

I'd still say that at least in Germany the trackability is there due to a thorough identity management system. Nothing along those lines exists in the US, the UK or Canada.

Posted by Axel at June 8, 2004 02:43 AM

We are not talking about trackability. We are talking about Identity theft. Very different things.

In the USA, there is a very large credit culture. This culture doesn't exist elsewhere, to my knowledge (but is gradually taking off in nearer countries). The credit system works by keeping national databases with three main companies of everyone on the system.

If you can crack the identity of someone, you can gain access to the credit which allows a very fast turnaround of purchases. It's possible to go buy a car the way other people buy appliances, and drive it out that hour. This happens a lot, by people stealing the identity and then living off it for a while, then moving on to the next identity.

Now, generally that credit is extended by a new company with which the identity has no prior relationship. (Everyone fights for this business.) So it is unlike for example getting access to a bank account (although that is a big part of the online phishing scams). In the case of a new credit relationship, the credit provider is caught between the desparation of acquiring new customers and the difficulty in proving who they really are.

In general, they go for the former, and everyone pays for the costs of the thief of the latter.

I can't recall, but at the FTC it is now the leading problem. It is the only serious crime on the net - phishing. By serious, I mean serious fraud, not the vandalous nature of viruses.

I'm conscious of not being able to explain it so well - which is why I wrote the blog entry. I didn't understand it until I lived with and observed some Americans and their credit histories. It's powerful stuff, culturally and economically pervasive.

Posted by Iang at June 8, 2004 03:59 AM

Ah, but trackability and traceability plays a huge role! If you have little chance of being traced and tracked down when doing fraudulent business, you can act much more carefree. That's what I mean by trackability: it's easy to hunt you down over here. However, this is only being done if there is a need.

You are right, of course, when you say that the credit culture is different. I didn't know it was possible to buy a car and drive it out the door the same hour - over here it takes about a day to check your credit rating and do all the paper work. And they often copy your id card (trackability once again).

Yes, I'll have to think about this some more, you're right ;-)

Posted by Axel at June 8, 2004 04:12 AM
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