In rapper-turned-Oscar-nominated-actor Will Smith's first movie, 1993's Six Degrees of Separation, he played Paul, a con man faking the identity of actor Sidney Poitier's son to gain access to the uppercrust Manhattan gentry -- and make a few bucks. Fewer than 10 years of separation later, Carlos Lomax of Duquesne would be put in jail for pulling a similar grift with Smith himself.
Criminals such as Lomax would seem to demonstrate the need for state protections against ID theft.
Lomax obtained the credit report and other biographical information of Willard C. Smith to open dozens of credit, bank and cell-phone accounts -- Kaufmann's, Sears, Lazarus, Kohl's, American Express, Sprint PCS -- and run up thousands of dollars in bills.
When arrested by state and federal men in black in 2002 for imitating Smith, Lomax had already been on probation for stealing the identities of NBA player Steve Smith and an undisclosed NFL player in 1998. He pleaded guilty and served a 30-month sentence. On probation since June, Lomax was sentenced on Dec. 27 to two years in prison for violating his probation by not returning to Duquesne from Atlanta.
Just five days before the talented Mr. Lomax was sent back to jail, Gov. Ed Rendell signed Senate Bill 712 -- the Breach of Personal Information Notification Act. The legislation requires companies and other institutions whose security systems have been compromised to notify those whose personal data they are storing. However, consumer-advocate groups argue that SB 712 is too lenient on financial institutions, banks and credit bureaus. The bill exempts financial institutions that are in compliance with federal consumer-protection guidelines, but those federal guidelines are weak, says the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group.
PennPIRG wrote to Rendell a week before he signed the act, maintaining that it "invests the decision about whether to notify in the hands of the entity whose security allowed the problem to occur in the first place." Since these institutions "employed insufficient protections on the front end, what faith should we place in [their] ability to assess risk on the back end?"
Beth McConnell, PennPIRG's state director, points to language in the bill defining "breach of the security of the system" as unauthorized acquisition of private information that an institution "reasonably believes has caused or will cause loss or injury to any resident."
"But they don't define what 'reasonably believes' means," says McConnell. "Information could be stolen but [financial institutions] might say, 'Well, it's only [a consumer's] last name and address, so I don't think it's really a problem.' And that kind of gray area gives them leeway to not notify customers."
Lomax, says McConnell, has "joined a very large number of other criminals in the largest-growing crime in America. Despite that, it's been extra-difficult to get the legislature to pass any proactive measures that would prevent ID theft from occurring."
Lomax, court records show, was even able to obtain a Blockbuster card in Will Smith's name. Whether he learned anything from Smith's earliest starring role remains uncertain.