Missouri may soon have the toughest penalty yet for identity thieves - life imprisonment for the most serious offenses.

This week Gov. Bob Holden, a Democrat, is expected to sign a bill the General Assembly overwhelmingly approved March 4 that would toughen penalties for anyone convicted of identity theft.

The life penalty - actually 10 years to life - would be for identify theft that contributed to stealing $100,000 or more of money, goods, or services. Crimes involving as little as $500 could bring prison time; those connected to smaller losses would be misdemeanors.

The life-imprisonment penalty is necessary to show would-be identity thieves that the state takes the issue extremely seriously, said Tammy Corrigan, the legislative assistant for the bill's author, state Rep. Jason Brown, an identity theft victim.

"It's just so easy to obtain and steal information these days, particularly over the Internet, that identity theft is increasing astronomically," Ms. Corrigan said Thursday.

In 2002, the latest year for which data are available, Missouri ranked 18th in the nation in reported incidents of identity theft, with nearly 2,600 cases, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Credit card fraud was the most common kind, followed by phone or utilities fraud.

Across the country, identity theft cost financial institutions and other businesses nearly $48 billion in 2002, and consumers paid $5 billion to get their money back and clear their names, the FTC reported.

John Byrne, the director of the American Bankers Association's Center for Regulatory Compliance, said the industry is pleased to see states cracking down on identity theft. But, he added, "the key to [the law's] effectiveness will be in whether sufficient resources are given to investigate the crimes and enforce the law."

Indeed, at a California Bankers Association conference last year, bankers complained that they had reported incidents of identity theft and subsequent fraud against their customers only to see the cases languish because of the lack of resources.

William O. Ratliff, the executive vice president of the Missouri Bankers Association, shares their frustration. In an interview Friday he said that the Missouri Police Chiefs Association assured his group last year, when seeking its support for the bill, that its passage would result in more cases being prosecuted.

"This law is good for banks," Mr. Ratliff said. "Banks and credit card companies usually take most of the losses due to identity theft, and so we were happy when the police chiefs association assured us that there would be some meat in this thing."

The bill would penalize thefts using stolen Social Security or driver's license numbers, bank account information, computer passwords, birth certificates, fingerprints, and biometric data.

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