An audit by the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General reveals that while the FBI and Justice Department have made "various efforts" to fight identity theft crimes in recent years, these initiatives have "faded as priorities" mainly because the agencies have failed to develop a coordinated plan to deal with what's become an epidemic of cybercrimes.

The audit (PDF format) is the most recent and comprehensive review of federal law enforcement's efforts to uphold The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998, a statute passed during President George W. Bush's second term that made identity theft a federal crime.

And while there have been a handful of high-profile identity theft arrests and convictions, the OIG report found that the number of defendants both charged and convicted of identity theft actually decreased between 2008 and 2009, despite the fact that the several independent surveys and reports show a dramatic increase in both the number of people and dollars lost to online identity theft scams.


According to the audit, 138 of 239 suspected identity thieves were convicted last year, down from 144 of 296 charged in 2008. Meanwhile, financial services researcher Javelin Strategy & Research in February reported that more than 11.1 million adults were victims of identity theft and fraud in 2009 -- up 12 percent from 2008 -- and the total costs of these crimes, including actual assets stolen, as well as the costs associated with rectifying the damage caused by the crimes, surged to more than $54 billion.

Inspector General Glenn Fine in the report repeatedly cited a lack of leadership within the federal agencies, particularly in their efforts to satisfy the objectives of then-President Bush's executive order creating the Identity Theft Task Force in 2007.

"Although some of these efforts have had success, in other instances the components did not address the recommendations of the President’s Task Force," the report said.

Most damning, the audit claims that representatives from every DOJ component involved in the review told the OIG that they have not received guidance from DOJ's leadership since the Task Force completed its work in September 2008.

"Further, DOJ did not assign any person or office with the responsibility to coordinate DOJ’s efforts to combat identity theft and to ensure that DOJ components further implement the recommendations of the President’s Task Force where appropriate," the OIG audit said.

"We believe the DOJ needs to ensure that its efforts to combat identity theft are coordinated and are given sufficient priority," it concluded, adding that the OIG audit includes a total of 14 recommendations that it believes will help improve the government's efforts to stamp out identity theft and fraud.

Tighter efforts to combat cybercrime, data theft

Along with creating what might be considered an identity theft czar, the OIG's recommendations call for including reports of identity theft that may be ancillary to the primary crimes investigated by the FBI, more attention to victims' needs and rights, improved and regular communication between identity theft investigators, and a concerted effort by all parties to conceive and implement future identity-theft related initiatives.

The OIG, however, did acknowledge that the FBI has done a solid job of working many of its identity theft cases through its criminal intrusion program, a group that it says does make cyber fraud a top priority. Also, it found that ID theft investigations are often folded into larger dragnets focused on health care fraud, mortgage fraud and credit card fraud.

But OIG auditors wanted to make the point that for every successful, high-profile conviction—including the sentencing last week of TJX hacker Albert Gonzalez to an unprecedented 20-year prison term, there are hundreds if not thousands of other people directly and indirectly victimized by identity theft.

"Identity theft can also be a significant element of violent crimes, such as domestic abuse, and even terrorism, and a significant number of ID theft-related crimes originate overseas," the report said.

Larry Barrett is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.