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Identity Theft and the Public Accounting Firm

Column: The eSecurity Advisor

From the Sept. 2008 Issue

This month’s column is an interview with Robert Listerman. Bob and I
recently spent a lunch hour together and talked about the problem of identity
theft and how technology plays a role in identity theft. It was a very informative,
eye opening and interesting conversation, and based on what we discussed I thought
it important to point out that practicing accountants need to understand this
problem. Practitioners need to be aware of the requirements the government is
imposing on all users of personal information and why these rules could potentially
cause significant issues for our profession.

Generally, identity theft is not directly linked to specific technology, but
technology becomes the enabler that allows identity theft to occur because the
root cause could be a poorly implemented firewall, improper security patching
or sloppy technical implementations. The technology is not to blame; rather,
it is the way the technology is utilized or implemented. While the focus this
month is on the problem of identity theft and some of the government requirements
being placed on all businesses, including the accounting profession, you should
also be mindful of the underlying technology issues as you read. Technology,
properly implemented, can prevent identity theft in a firm. The key question
should be whether enough has been done with the technology to ensure that it
is not enabling identity theft.

Before we get into the content of the interview, I would like to introduce
you to Bob. Robert Listerman (Bob) is a Michigan CPA with over 25 years of experience
as a process improvement business consultant. He graduated from Michigan State
University and became a CPA while employed at Touche Ross & Co., Detroit,
now known as a member firm of Deloitte & Touche USA LLP. Bob added the Certified
Identity Theft Risk Management Specialist (CITRMS) designation issued by The
Institute of Fraud Risk Management in 2007, which recognizes his knowledge and
experience in identity theft risk management.

Over 50 percent of identity theft can be traced back to unlawful or mishandling
of non-public data within the work place. Recent federal and state laws have
been enacted to bring both criminal and civil liability to any organization
that improperly maintains data on customers, employees, vendors and even its
own non-public identifying information.

Now that we have an idea of Bob’s background, let’s take a look
at this security problem that can affect public accounting firms just as much
as it affects the business clients we serve.

John: What is identity theft?
Bob: Identity theft is the use
of personal identifying information by someone other than the rightful owner
of that information for purposes of criminal activity. Generally, the criminal
is using this information to benefit financially. In many cases, the person
using the information is also NOT the person who originally obtained the information.
Some of the more common types of identity theft include the following:

  • Driver’s license theft – the use of a fake
    ID to commit or cover a crime.
  • Social Security number theft – the use of a person’s
    SSN to obtain income generally payable through a 1099 or W-2.
  • Character/Criminal ID theft – the use of an ID to
    cover criminal activity from another state. For example, a criminal carrying
    an apparently valid driver’s license in Virginia using someone else’s
    identity covers up the fact that Maryland has revoked a criminal’s driver’s
    license because of too much drunken driving activity.
  • Medical theft – the use of someone’s ID to
    obtain test results. For example, someone who suspects they might be HIV positive
    could use someone else’s identity to obtain the test and results.
  • Financial Identity Theft – The theft of information
    for purposes of stealing money from the victim.

John: How large is the

Bob: In overall terms, the problem
of identity theft is larger than the war on drugs. It is the most reported crime
to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and is growing at a rapid pace annually.
The other thing that makes this a large problem is that law enforcement has
the most difficulty in pursuing the criminals committing these crimes. The problem
is also multi-pronged because the Internet allows criminal gangs in Eastern
Europe, China, Russia or other parts of the world to hack into computers in
the United States and steal information. They then post this on the Internet
for sale to others who actually use the information. Not only does this make
it a large problem in terms of size, but it is also the reason it is so difficult
for law enforcement to arrest and prosecute those responsible.

Many times, identity theft is a crime of opportunity, such as shoulder surfers
stealing information from someone at work or the public library, or a member
of the cleaning crew working after the office is empty and obtaining information
left out on someone’s desk.

There is an active market for stolen identities; and, depending on how much
information is available on a particular person, the price for the stolen identity
can be in the hundreds of dollars. In many cases, the stolen identity when used
generally results in small losses that are more of a hassle for law enforcement.
Since finding and prosecuting the criminals, especially if they originate overseas,
is difficult; many times the only people prosecuted for the identity theft are
the users of the stolen identity.

John: Why should accounting
firms be concerned?

The primary reason accounting firms should be concerned is because of the loss
of reputation. Twenty percent of customers who are affected by identity theft
originating from a single source will cease doing business with that entity.
Forty percent will look at other competitors with the idea of possibly changing
to that provider. Five percent will sue the entity who caused their identity
to be compromised. Because tax and accounting professionals and other public
accounting entities are held to a higher standard in terms of confidentiality,
it is likely the number of clients who would move their business would be greater
than 20 percent for a public accounting firm.

In addition to the loss of faith by the customer base, the rules regulating
the control of financial information promulgated by the FTC can be enforced
both criminally and civilly against the entity. Several provisions of the Gramm
Leach Bliley Act of 1999 can be enforced by the states in addition to the federal
level. Affected individuals can have claims against the organization and, as
a result, create a growing concern issue for the affected entity. If executive
management is determined to have complete disregard for the provisions of the
law and regulations, they can be held criminally responsible.

John: What are accounting
firms required to protect under the law?

Bob: Personnel Identifying Information
(PII) is what we are expected to protect. This includes the obvious such as
Social Security Numbers, credit card numbers, bank account information, and
birth date along with many things that we don’t think of, such as an unlisted
address or telephone number. The rule of thumb is that if it is not publically
available in a resource established as a public source, such as a phone book,
then it is PII.

Public Accounting firms are still subject to the provisions of the Gramm Leach
Bliley Act even though we are no longer required to send out privacy notices.
Public accountants should talk with their corporate attorney or professional
liability carrier for further clarification about what and how to deal with

John: What can we do to comply with the
various laws applicable to public accountants?

Bob: Gramm Leach Bliley has the
most teeth in terms of enforcement provisions and applicability to public accounting
firms. It carries the largest fines for non-compliance. This should be the one
that most accountants become familiar with to prevent problems from developing
in their firms.

From a 50,000 foot view, the things accountants can do to protect themselves

1. Become familiar with the applicable laws

2. Every entity should have an identified senior manager charged with protecting

3. Business processes should be examined to determine if PII exists in that
process and if so, does it need to be protected.

4. Establish a privacy or sensitive information policy

5. Train all employees even if they don’t handle sensitive information
what the policies are and what they are expected to do.

For the person in charge of maintaining the privacy information, they should
establish a written policy, provide the training to the organization, and offer
Identity theft protection to all employees either as a company paid benefit
or as an employee paid option. The reason to provide identity theft protection
is for two reasons:

1. It can serve as a red flag if a large number of claims start to occur
for employees – it could mean an insider or vendor is stealing information
about fellow employees.

2. It provides a resource for the employee whose identity has been stolen
to help resolve the mess that is created. It reduces the time the employee
spends at work trying to get the problem resolved favorably.

John: What resources are available to help
me comply?

Bob: The FTC
has a large amount of information about identity theft both from the employer
and victims perspective (

BTR-Security’s website (
has a large number of resources along with other information pieces on the area
of identity theft. [This site is maintained by Bob Listerman].

The Identity Theft Resource Center (
is a non-profit that helps track breaches and provides helpful information for
both victims and those responsible for preventing identity theft.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (
has lots of templates and other tools for organizations trying to develop internal
documents and procedures.

It is generally not the technology which causes the identity theft problem.
In many cases it is human error that leads to identity theft. Hackers are proactive,
but are a small part of the larger problem. Identity theft is generally a crime
of opportunity when a person with a weak moral compass has the information fall
into their possession without much effort. Your data whether in electronic or
paper form should be thought of in terms of its monetary value on the open market
to an identify thief who is attempting to sell it. To an identity theft, the
data held by and maintained by a public accountant can represent a large sum
of money to the thief.

We, in industry, not only need to become more alert and aware of the dangers
around us from those trying to steal our data, but we also need to be aware
of the new government requirements coming online which will impact our business.
These rules and regulations are promulgated to ensure we are doing the right
thing to protect our client’s data from falling into the hands of an opportunist.
Are you doing your part both technically and non-technically to secure your