COLUMBUS - The Ohio House yesterday voted 88-8 to increase penalties for identify fraud targeting the elderly and disabled and to legally arm victims with "passports" they may show police or creditors confronting them over acts committed in their names.
Opponents, however, charged that state law shouldn't categorize crimes according to victim and questioned the need for a passport law since Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro has already implemented such a program using $404,000 in federal and state start-up dollars.
The measure now goes to the Senate.
"The objective of this voluntary program is to provide victims with the means of demonstrating to law enforcement officials, creditors, and others that their personal records have been affected by identify theft," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Hughes (R., Columbus).
The bill would allow a victim of identify theft, after filing a police report, to apply for a passport. The program is voluntary, so the attorney general would not be forced to keep it operating if funds dry up and law enforcement and creditors would not be forced to honor a passport flashed before their eyes.
The program was launched several months ago and would cost about $184,000 a year to maintain, according to an analysis by the Legislative Services Commission. Petro spokesman Kim Norris said the program's ongoing costs are being absorbed by the office's budget.
"The U.S. Department of Justice wants to replicate this first-of-a-kind program nationwide," she said. "Six hundred and eight law enforcement agencies, in so short an amount of time, wanted the [application] software, and the involvement of the National Notary Association, which does the U.S. passports, all lend credibility to the program."
Under the bill, an act of "identify fraud" would be relabeled "identity theft" if the victim is elderly or disabled, and the severity of the crime and its accompanying penalties would be ratcheted up by one degree.
For example, if someone would normally be convicted of identify fraud for a crime involving between $5,000 and $100,000, it would be upgraded from a third-degree felony currently, punishable by up to five years in prison, to a second-degree felony, punishable by up to eight years, if the victim were elderly or disabled.
Mr. Hughes said the elderly and disabled are singled out "because they can be more trusting in nature and, therefore, more vulnerable to the traps set by identity thieves."
But Rep. Diana Fessler (R., New Carlisle) argued that crimes shouldn't be categorized according to victim.
"It would be my preference that we would treat all crimes, as much as practical, consistently," she said. "Identity theft is identify theft, and you ought not to be doing it, and if you do, you will be punished."
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