ATLANTA - Computerized identity theft might be the fastest-growing crime - eventually affecting an estimated one out of four Americans, but consumers are their own best safeguards, said experts meeting in Atlanta on Friday.
Policy makers haven't decided what laws need to be written or whether state or federal governments should enact them. Few states have provided ample funding to pay the $38,000 tab for training individual computer investigators in identity theft, law-enforcement officials said during the Southern Regional Meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General.
Yet there is a need for some level of protection. A recent survey by the Federal Trade Commission indicates that 57 percent of Internet users refuse to purchase products online for fear their personal information will be stolen.
But crooks are getting hold of the data anyway, many by tapping into or buying their way into corporate databases to get records of customers who made traditional purchases.
"The challenge is not to abandon the technology," said Sen. Max Cleland, a member of the Senate telecommunication subcommittee. "That is like giving up the phone in 1898 and saying Alexander Bell was wrong."
The Georgia Democrat, who addressed the group of attorneys general from Georgia, Florida, Texas and six other Southern states, admitted that none of the legislation pending in Congress is likely to pass anytime soon.
Executives from companies that collect the data told the panel of chief state lawyers that they prefer federal legislation rather than having to deal with differing laws in 50 states.
Plus, the companies who use the data for targeted marketing based on consumer habits don't want restrictions that tie their hands.
Industries' fears might not be realized soon. Each of the attorneys general said he was hesitant to pass flawed legislation on such a complex issue.
"No one wants to disrupt this great economy that has come about because of the digital advancements," said Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker. "We don't want to do one thing thinking we're fixing a problem and have it end up creating five other problems."
Even governments are subject to computer hackers trying to steal sensitive information.
Larry Singer, Georgia's chief information officer, told the panel that, just hours before his presentation, his analysts detected two sophisticated attempts to access the state's computers containing confidential records with companies it is trying to woo as employers. By reverse hacking, the analysts traced the source through two countries to Moscow and also learned that the hackers had tried to access 14 corporations, he said.
Training such computer investigators is expensive, and the cost of educating a forensics expert who can even read deleted data can reach $85,000, money that should come from the federal government, said Buddy Nix, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Reach Walter C. Jones at (404) 589-8424.