Groups fight identity fraud

Renewed push for national driver's license standards

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when authorities learned that seven of the 19 hijackers held Virginia driver's licenses, the state immediately moved to crack down on loopholes. Other states followed suit, and it appeared for a time that Congress would take steps to ensure the states could collaborate in preventing driver's license fraud.

But those efforts waned, and California recently enacted a law that made it easier for illegal aliens to obtain driver's licenses. Each of the remaining 48 states has its own identification standards for drivers to get licenses.

Now, support is building again to create national standards for driver's licenses, and to make it possible for states to share license information. The House Select Committee on Homeland Security held a hearing Oct. 1 examining ways to slow or halt the growth of fraudulent identification documents.

The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, a prime player in the discussion, strongly supports establishing national standards. The National Governors Association has joined AAMVA's efforts, as have the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments.

But because cash-strapped states aren't in a position to begin a national revamping of driver's licensing systems, they are looking to Congress to fund a new interstate architecture that would allow them to share identification information.

"To meet the terrorist threat, we need to get better, more reliable identification to our customs and immigration inspectors, to state [motor vehicle departments], to the [Transportation Security Administration, and to the law enforcement, security personnel and civilians who need it to ensure our safety," said Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., chairman of the committee. "Congress and this committee must consider whether it is not time for uniform minimum standards for identification to board aircraft and to purchase dangerous weapons."

Jason King, a spokesman for AAMVA, said after the hearing that there is no legislative opposition to a standardized IT structure for driver's licenses, but "government inertia" has delayed action.

Proponents said a nationwide solution is needed because the states do not have a single, agreed-upon standard for the information contained on a license, nor do they agree upon how long the document is valid or the security measures built into each card.

States cannot check applicants against driver's license records in other states. And many states use a person's Social Security number as the driver's license number. This makes it possible for a single document to serve as the starting point for building false identities.

The General Accounting Office recently concluded in two reports that the states need the means to verify identity and the validity of out-of-state licenses. One study examined the verification of Social Security numbers, while the other was an undercover investigation to see how easy it is to obtain driver's licenses with forged documents.

"There is very little fraud prevention in the system today," said Barry Goleman, vice president of public sector in American Management Systems Inc.'s public safety and transportation group.

Tom Wolfson, senior vice president of government affairs and communications for AAMVA, based in Arlington, Va., said the organization does not advocate a national database.

"We would have a pointer system. If you put certain information into a search query -- name, date of birth, Social Security number -- the system could go around to all the states' databases until it came up with a match. The records would stay in the states," he said.

The association has recommended two possible approaches to such a system. A Driver Record Information Verification System, or DRIVerS, would create a national architecture to allow states to share information while maintaining their own databases, Wolfson said. The Transportation Department reviewed the concept and reported to Congress in summer 2001 that it was feasible. The estimated price is $77 million over three years to get the system up and running.

A second approach would be to expand the existing national Commercial Driver's License Information System, which tracks the records of more than 10 million commercial drivers. Wolfson said this approach also would take three years and cost about $36 million.

AMS has work in areas related to this, Goleman said. In October, AAMVA will roll out an AMS-designed program to train state employees to verify valid identification documents submitted by driver's license applicants. The company also is developing a comparable program for vehicle documents such as titles and registration papers.

It's not a big-ticket program -- Goleman said the total value of the contract today is about $800,000 -- but is an important first step in cutting down on fraud.

The price tag for either option "is a pittance," Goleman said. "When you're talking about a nationwide driver population estimated at 230 million or 240 million drivers, $77 million really is a nominal fund. ... It's not like it's a speculative investment; there are known paybacks from it in terms of how it's increased motor safety in the carrier industry."

Two obstacles to a driver's license verification system are privacy concerns and state vs. federal authority.

The issue of privacy is well known. The American public balks at the idea of anything that could be used as a national ID card. Wolfson said the designs of the two systems his organization supports address that by not depending on a central database.

The question of using federal funds to tackle a state-level problem is a little more difficult. "This is a national problem that happens to be in the portfolio of state governments," Wolfson said.

Because states set their own guidelines, any national system will break down if there aren't agreed-upon standards, said several witnesses at the committee hearing.

For instance, a new California law allows driver's license applicants to use a "matricula consular" card, issued by the Mexican government, or a federal taxpayer identification number as ID for a license. But the federal government has stated that the Mexican card is not suitable for this purpose, while Internal Revenue Service rules allow for obtaining a taxpayer identification number by mail and for third parties to file applications. The IRS has issued warnings that the numbers should not be used for identification purposes.

In addition to sharing driver's license information, states also could fight identification fraud by exchanging digital photos or birth certifications, Wolfson said. Money was allocated in the 2002 emergency supplemental spending bill for pilot programs to establish a digital photo exchange and to set up a system for online verification of birth certificates.The pilot programs are just getting under way.

States participating in the digital image exchange include Delaware, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. Colorado, Iowa and Minnesota will test birth certificate verification systems, Wolfson said.

As for a national driver's license pointer system, bills were introduced in the last session of Congress to fund a program, but no action was taken, and they have not been re-introduced this term.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., one of the sponsors of the old bill, said he did not introduce a separate bill this year because the funding may be included in the reauthorization for the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century.

"It depends on what happens. Sen. Durbin may introduce his bill again if it's not included," she said.

Staff Writer Patience Wait can be reached at pwait@postnewsweektech.com.

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