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ID theft sentence sends message

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The sentencing of a former Hawaii beauty queen to 20 years in prison should be a warning to others against stealing the identity of others for financial gain. The case is a reminder to the innocents that identity theft on a major scale is commonly a brick-and-mortar crime using the stolen identities to make online purchases.

Susan E. Shaw did not say in state court how she obtained the names, addresses, Social Security numbers and dates of birth of her victims. Deputy Prosecutor Chris Van Marter suggested in court papers that Hono­lulu police believe she obtained the information from mortgage company files. Police said all the victims had recently applied for home loans at a mortgage company where Shaw’s boyfriend worked. She used fraudulently obtained credit cards to purchase trips, designer bags and other merchandise totaling more than $200,000.

That is a shade more sophisticated than the method of Pyong Kun Pak, a South Korean who gained the identities of 30 people more than a decade ago by what the Honolulu police called "non-tech avenues" — credit card receipts taken from trash cans, bills pilfered from mailboxes and receipts retrieved from gutters. Pak then went about ordering goods costing as much as $300,000 via the Internet.

Pak entered a plea bargain with the Attorney General’s Office and was sentenced in December 2001 to a 10-year prison term. That may have been a factor in the 2002 Legislature’s decision to double that maximum sentence in future cases of identity theft. It should have come as no surprise, then, that Circuit Judge Dexter Del Rosario sentenced Susan Shaw to a 20-year prison term and ordered her to pay $68,235 in restitution.

Identity theft is an escalating problem, mutating with sophistication as cybertheft evolves. For many victims, the harm goes well beyond mere inconvenience, as noted by the Identity Theft Resource Center: The crime can threaten credit ratings as well as the ability to get a loan, residency or employment. The sense of violation, too, can have lasting effect.

Shaw, 37, had been first runner-up in the 1992 Miss Hawaii International pageant and was handed the crown when the winner left to become a pro footballer cheerleader. Her defense attorney said she had recently been diagnosed as suffering from mental health problems and had been abused as a child, but those arguments are not very effective in non-violent crime cases as cunning as this one.

"There is no legal, moral or ethical defense to what she did to the 50-plus victims in this case," Van Marter said.

Shaw claimed to regret having "harmed eight individuals whose information was used illegally to obtain credit cards," while Van Marter cited 23 victims in the case’s 140 counts of theft, identity theft, credit card theft and various other illegalities.

Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro asked legislators this year to provide stiffer penalties for people convicted of theft or identity theft against the elderly. Such "financial crimes can be just as devastating as physical injuries," he asserted, but legislators rejected his proposal.

Identity theft is a debilitating crime at all age levels. Legislators measured its seriousness correctly nine years ago and Judge Del Rosario recognized it as appropriate this week. The damage done by identity theft certainly deserves the stiff punishment imposed.

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