Identity fraud is growing, despite a slew of new laws aimed at stopping it.
Some con artists are obtaining information by simply calling a bank and posing as a customer. Citigroup is taking the threat seriously. Its credit card services unit is training its card staff-from managers to customer service representatives-on how to better control the dissemination of customer information.
Joan P. Warrington, vice president and general counsel of Citibank's North American cards unit, said the operation's president, A. Sami Siddiqui, decided in July that he wanted privacy training for everyone in his group-even for third-party processors who do business with Citibank customers.
The training started last month. "It stems from a broader desire to address privacy," Ms. Warrington said.
At a conference last week on privacy issues, identity fraud was a resounding theme.
Alan F. Westin, publisher of the Hackensack, N.J., newsletter Privacy and American Business, which sponsored the conference, said, "This crime is out of control."
California, one of the first states to recognize the problem, passed a law last year to criminalize identity fraud. This year Georgia, West Virginia, Kansas, and Wisconsin enacted similar laws. Several other states, including New York, have legislation in the pipeline.
In October, Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act, which bars the use of personal information to commit financial and other crimes. The idea behind these laws is to give people who have been victimized the right to seek restitution from con artists.
Victims "are saying that this is the worst thing that has ever happened to them," said Mr. Westin, who is also a professor at Columbia University Law School.
But some privacy experts said they doubt these laws will accomplish their goals. "The federal bill will provide some relief for victims because it designates them as victims. But it doesn't solve the problems of credit reports being given out too easily," said Evan Hendricks, editor of Privacy Times, a consumer newsletter in Washington.
John Ford, vice president of privacy at Equifax Inc., said there is no evidence that identity fraud is on the rise. Equifax and the two other major credit bureaus-Experian Inc. and Trans Union Corp.-have set up telephone lines dedicated to calls from consumers who say they are victims of fraud.
Also part of the debate over how to fight identity fraud is whether public government records-such as Social Security numbers-should be so easily available. "The issue is whether to cut off access to Social Security numbers," said Robert R. Belair, editor of Privacy and American Business.
The credit card industry maintains that identity fraud is not new and that its proliferation is being exaggerated. In an editorial in the November-December issue of Privacy and American Business, Visa U.S.A.'s general counsel, Russell W. Schrader, referred to identity theft as a "problem of the past." He said identity fraud makes up less than 5% of all credit card fraud. Mr. Hendricks countered that "it is a growing percentage."