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Act against identity theft

It's hard to blame the U.S. Postal Service for not requiring photo identification every time someone fills out a change-of-address form. But a story in today's Outlook about identity theft does reveal potential hazards that should keep postal customers on guard.

The article describes how a Gresham woman allegedly stole the identities of 86 people by filling out postal change-of-address forms and redirecting their mail to her. Police say this enabled the woman to obtain all types of sensitive information about her victims - W-2 forms, credit-card information and the like.

After hearing about this woman's alleged crimes, the obvious question is whether the post office ought to be less casual in how it deals with requests for address changes. Right now, the post office doesn't make customers prove their identities to change their mailing address. When such a request comes to the post office - in person, by mail or online - the post office sends out a computer-generated letter to both the old and new address to verify the change.

However, not everyone gives close inspection to the piles of mail they receive each day - including messages from the postal service. And if the computer-generated letters go unanswered, the postal service assumes that the address change is correct. Locally, that's how 86 people apparently had their vital information fall into the wrong hands.

Identity theft is no light-weight crime. Victims can see their credit destroyed and their finances thrown into turmoil. Police in the Gresham area and all of Multnomah County are unable to keep up with the volume of identity theft cases reported. Given the severity of the problem, people must be more vigilant in how they handle their mail in general. On the specific question of change-of-address forms, we don't believe it's practical for the postal service to verify the identification for 110,000 requests each day. Even if that were possible, customers would bristle at the inconvenience of having to make such requests in person.

But we do think the postal service should explore whether a higher level of security ought to be offered.

The best way to prevent this sort of crime, however, is through awareness. All of us must pay attention to what arrives, and what doesn't arrive, in their mailboxes.

Another deterrent to identity theft would be real-life penalties for those who commit such crimes. We aren't yet sold on former state Rep. Kevin Mannix's statewide initiative to impose mandatory sentences on those convicted of property and drugs crimes. But we do agree that identity thieves will keep breaking the law until they realize they actually could go to jail for their offenses.