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The San Diego Union Tribune
Pedro Morillas

“Ugh. I just got back from the supermarket, and those pushy signature gatherers are back!”

That is the opening line of a new radio ad aired by the group Californians Against Identity Theft. The 60-second spot goes on to describe nefarious characters hired to collect petitions, fly-by-night signature-gathering companies, and the possibility that your personal information will end up in India.

The character assassination of the petitioner out in front of your local supermarket is all a setup for what is the not-too-subtle point of the ad – signing petitions puts you at risk for identity theft.

If it were true, it’s almost enough to make you avoid the grocery store altogether until after the next election. Fortunately, consumers face absolutely no threat of identity theft when signing a petition, regardless of how pushy the petitioner is.

In reality, the information the ad refers to as an “identity theft starter kit” is no more than anyone gives to a FedEx delivery person when he drops off a package for you. In order for a would-be identity thief to successfully pretend to be you, they’d need a lot more than just a name, address and signature.

In fact, most consumer protection experts agree that the key to identity theft is a Social Security number. According to a 2008 Federal Trade Commission report, “Security in Numbers: SSNs and Identity Theft,” SSNs often are described as the “keys to the kingdom,” because an identity thief with a consumer’s SSN (and perhaps other identifying information) may be able to use that information to convince a business that he is who he purports to be, allowing him to open new accounts, access existing accounts or obtain other benefits in the consumer’s name.

Given that petitioners do not collect Social Security numbers and the information they do collect can be found in a phone book, the goal of the radio ad is clearly more about influencing politics than protecting consumers.

Backers of the radio spot claim the ads are an attempt to shine a light on some of the problems with the current initiative process. No one can dispute there are flaws in the system, from the increasing influence of moneyed interests to the growing sense of voter fatigue. But further undermining the legitimacy of California’s initiative process in order to fix it is like getting rid of termites by burning your house down.

Whatever the motivation behind this particular scare tactic, the attempt is misguided. Once voters opt out of participating for fear of identity theft, it’s highly unlikely that they will ever opt back in. With record amounts of corporate money pouring into elections, and narrow interests lining up to rewrite California law through the initiative process, we need more people to participate – not fewer. Scaring the public away from weighing in on important issues facing our state doesn’t do anyone any good.

Voters should decide whether to sign a petition, or not, based on the merits of the proposal before them, without having to wonder if they are putting themselves at risk. Californians Against Identity Theft should pull its ad off the air, correct the record with regards to identity theft, and apologize for misleading the public.

Pedro Morillas is the legislative director for the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), a consumer protection and public interest organization. He previously has advocated on behalf of CALPIRG on legislative issues related to identity theft and consumer privacy.

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