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Data Broker Scammed; 500,000 Potentially Victimized
Jeff Pasternack

Well, it certainly did not take long for it to happen. From December of 2003 through August of 2004 I wrote six columns about how easy it is for identity thieves to buy information from data brokers like ChoicePoint. “Pasternack, stop telling people how easy it is to acquire identities.” “Pasternack, you couldn't be further from the truth about how vulnerable our data is, so stop scaring people.” “Pasternack, you blathering idiot, stealing identities couldn't be as simple as you describe it.”

Here's some news for you people who said I was crying “Fire!” in a crowded movie house: In February 2005, data broker ChoicePoint was scammed for at least 35,000 records and, according to a published report that quoted Lt. Robert Costa, who heads the Los Angeles task force in charge of the criminal investigation, the total number of people vulnerable to identity theft in the case could reach 500,000.

The task force said that at least 700 people had their identities stolen during a year-long scam by still-unknown scammers who had signed up as clients of ChoicePoint. Does this ring a bell? Sounds like someone else got wise to the process I described the January of 2004, eh? Remember how I described how easy it was to become a client of ChoicePoint and turn a paltry $150 expense into a $12,000 gain? Boy, it annoyed a whole lot of you. A paranoid fear-mongerer, you said. Guess what? Just because I was paranoid didn't mean that I was wrong.

Look, let's say that my fictitious collections company buys 50 identities a month at $40 each. I use five a month to create new credit card accounts and directly scam each for $12,000 a pop. $2,000 expense for $60,000 income. The other 45 I let ride so as to hide a pattern. Set up another collections company and run the same scam. Instead of doing it out of Washington, I expend my operations to 10 cities from Richmond to Philadelphia. I use UPS Stores and other mail box providers and run one victim through each location one time. I wear different colored wigs and facial hair. Sometimes I drive, sometimes I take the bus, plane or train. This is so easy.

And who in their right mind thinks that only 500,000 people in ChoicePoint's database are vulnerable? ChoicePoint is only one company. There are many others out there who are doing the same thing, being scammed in ones and two, tens and twenties. This is such a no-brainer scam. Oh, excuse me, there's a blip of good news: Olatunji Oluwatosin was arrested on October 27, 2004 and sentenced him to 16 months in prison for his involvement in a ChoicePoint scam. ChoicePoint faxed him some paperwork at a Kinko's store. Are you kidding me? How easy is that? You don't even have to have your own computer, just rent one at Kinko's for a few dollars an hour, pay a few pennies per page for printing and to receive faxes and run your ChoicePoint scam from there!

Whoops, this just in: ChoicePoint also owns a DNA analysis lab. Can you flash forward a few years when biometrics and DNA are used more completely throughout society, commerce and government? Imagine a headline like this: ChoicePoint Confirms DNA Database Compromised; Millions of Identities Threatened. How good will you feel then? Will you like it when your DNA record is used by some petty thief, religious zealot or freedom fighter?

Airport Guard: “Sir, please place your hand here for an identity check.”

TechnoPeasant: “Happy day, yeah, sure, no problem.”

Red lights flash and 3 armed guards grab me and whisk me away to a prison and I'm labeled as a terror-detainee, devoid of rights and representation. Orwellian for sure, and why? Because some data and DNA broker like ChoicePoint has their DNA database hacked and by random chance some terrorist swapped identities with me?

TechnoPeasant: “What? No, I'm not Baji Naji'in from Yemen, I'm Jeff Pasternack from Delray Beach, Florida.”

Prison Guard: “Sure pal, DNA evidence is 100% accurate and your DNA comes up with you being Baji Naji'in from Yemen and computers don't lie. Come on, its time for your wood shampoo and we'll see if our brand of cleanliness doesn't bring you closer to telling the truth.”

TechnoPeasant:“But I wasn't anywhere near that Cleveland school! I was at the Publix deli counter in Boca Raton!”

Prison Guard: “Oh pu-lease, we got your DNA in 17 spots along the way, so stow it. The real Jeff Pasternack was at that Publix, we checked his DNA against the database and it worked out. You are Baji Naji'in and that's that.”

Yeah, I can hear y'all now, laughing at the TechnoPeasant who you think has gone so far off the deep end that he's not even in the pool. But guess what? A year ago y'all thought I was nuts and now hundreds of thousands of people have their identities in the hands of criminals who used methods that can only be described as eerily close to what I described back then.

So what's to be done about it? Attorneys general from 19 states are up in arms about the ChoicePoint snafu along with countless privacy advocates and security experts, all of whom are clamoring for federal oversight of the data brokerage industry. I have a funny feeling that, consistent with our nation's recent legislative history involving citizen rights and the illusion of privacy, there's going to be some sort of poorly considered, knee-jerk reaction before summertime. I can only hope that it contains some sort of notification component like California Senate Bill 1386, because that's partially responsible for the ChoicePoint scam becoming so widely known.

We've so completely and thoroughly lost control of our personal data that I can't see a reasonable way of recovering it. But here's what I can see: millions of Americans losing their identities each year until some incredibly thorough, and strictly enforced, federal oversight program is enacted. Until then, wouldn't it be fitting if ChoicePoint CEO Derek V. Smith and COO Dough C. Curling were included in the victim count?


Jeff Pasternack is the president of Dynamic Consulting Group, a franchise partner of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and author of the TechnoPeasant Review.
If you have questions or comments about this column, please write to him at