The Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act was passed swiftly by Congress and signed by the president in response to the rapid increase in all forms of identity theft, particularly online "phishing" scams that bait consumers for their credit card information pretending to act on behalf of legitimate companies.
The bill was authored by Rep. John Carter, R-Texas.
"We're taking an important step today to combat the problem of identity theft, one of the fastest growing financial crimes in our nation," Bush said at the signing of the bill. "Last year alone, nearly 10 million Americans had their identities stolen by criminals who rob them and the nation's businesses of nearly $50 billion through fraudulent transactions. The bill I'm about to sign sends a clear message that a person who violates another's financial privacy will be punished."
Identity theft statistics have reached an all-time high, says the Federal Trade Commission, which in 2003 tracked more than 214,905 cases, nearly double the amount of reports from the previous year. Identity theft victims are estimated at about 10 million.
The new law increases the prison term for those convicted of identity theft by two years, and if stolen credit card information is used to commit crimes deemed "terrorist acts" by authorities, then prison terms are lengthened an extra five years.
The act also orders the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentencing guidelines, to enhance penalties for insiders who steal data that is then used in identity theft crimes.
"Like other forms of stealing, identity theft leaves the victim poorer and feeling terribly violated," Bush said. "The criminal can quickly damage a person's lifelong effort to build a good credit rating."