Los Altos Hills mom and privacy expert Michelle Dennedy knows from personal experience how devastating identity theft can be; her young daughter's identity was stolen—twice.
The state estimates that more than one million Californians are victimized by identity theft each year, which is part of the reason why a group of 20 California Department of Justice attorneys and investigators were recently assembled to form a new crime unit that would charge and prosecute technology crimes.
The eCrime Unit, announced last week by Attorney General Kamala Harris, aims to combat criminal activity in cyberspace, including identity theft, Internet fraud and scams, child exploitation, theft of computer components or services, and intellectually property crimes, among others. Since most crimes committed are multi-jurisdictional, the eCrime Unit will work across jurisdictions and prosecute criminals on a statewide level.
"I am creating the eCrime Unit so that California can be a leader in using innovative law enforcement techniques to target these criminals,” Harris said in a statement.
The eCrime Unit, which began operations in August, comes on the heels of growing concern of cybercrime, particularly those aimed at children. In the same month, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo) and Silicon Valley tech leaders in Mountain View to discuss and find solutions to protecting children in cyberspace.
Among the notable tech leaders who spoke at the gathering was Dennedy, chief privacy officer of McAfee and founder of the iDennedy Project, a consulting company aimed at bringing privacy and security products to light.
“Basically, it’s a virus,” Dennedy said. “You’re never ever really going to be free of it.”
Dennedy was shocked to learn that her own daughter had her identity stolen not only once, but twice. The first time it was stolen was 11 years before her daughter was born. Parents are encouraged to apply for a Social Security number before they leave the hospital, and some are receiving numbers that had been previously used illegally, she said.
“That was a blow,” said Dennedy on hearing the news from an identity protection service, called AllClear ID, which is powered by Texas-based Debix. “I’m trying so hard to save the world that I can’t even save my own child.”
The news added fuel to the fire for Dennedy’s pursuit of stronger measures for data protection and online privacy. As a privacy pioneer, she has not only created the iDennedy Project, but also a media site, called TheIdentityProject.com, which educates people about identity protection. In addition, she is currently writing a couple of books for adults and children on that issue.
“Your child has a lot that thieves want,” Dennedy said. “Criminals are very, very smart and they know how to leverage this and they can absolutely devastate your family’s finances, but that doesn’t mean we have to be paralyzed.”
According to the Federal Trade Commission, California is in the lead with the most identity complaints of any state and is the third highest per capita. In addition, every year, more than 1 million Californians are victims of identity theft, which results in total losses throughout the state, exceeding $46 million in 2010.
Dennedy recommends that people should not only get educated on these issues, but also talk to their children about being safe online and “the value of a good name, how important information is and the importance of protecting it.”
In addition to Dennedy’s resources, the attorney general’s new eCrime Unit will provide training on cyber safety and the importance of strong information-security practices for not only the judiciary, prosecutors and law enforcement officers, but also the public.
Harris also unveiled the launch of a website focussed on online child safety, identity theft prevention tips and help for victims.
“Be smart enough to know what to ask for and be a sensitive and smart consumer,” Dennedy said.