JEFFERSON CITY - Identity theft penalties would be increased from six months in jail to a possible class A felony under a bill initially approved by the House on Wednesday.
The bill also imposes the penalty of a class B felony for trafficking in stolen identities.
The Federal Trade Commission's Web site lists 2,558 reported cases of identity theft in Missouri from 2002 and 161,819 cases nation-wide. Missouri ranks 18th among reported identity theft victims in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The bill's handler, Rep. Jason Brown, R-Platte City, said he and his wife were victims of identity theft a few years ago, and law enforcement officials also brought the issue to him.
In floor debate, Rep. Barbara Fraser, D-St. Louis County, said the harm caused by identity theft goes beyond monetary damages.
"It is a far greater loss in many cases than the financial loss because of the hassles -- because of clearing one's name," she said.
Brown said the crime of identity theft has increased in recent years with commerce over the Internet and phone.
"A lot of times vendors and consumers will not have a face-to-face meeting," he said. "They don't know each other on a personal, first-name basis."
The bill would create a stairstep approach to penalties, ranging from a class B misdemeanor for identity theft with no monetary or property theft to a class A felony for identity theft involving theft of more than $100 thousand.
A person who steals an identity to vote or alter the results of an election would be guilty of a class C felony under the bill. Identity theft for the purpose of terrorism would be punishable by a class A felony.
This was the first bill debated in the House this session. House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-St. Louis County, said its early placement was deliberate.
"It's nice to start the sesssion off with something that everyone agrees needs to be done," she said. Many Missourians said the current penalties were too weak, Hanaway added.
Cases of identity theft often go unreported because of weak penalties and an uncertainty of the proper avenues for reporting the crime, Brown said. People often don't discover they have been victims of identity theft until months or years after the theft occurs, he said.
The House is expected to take a final vote on the bill Thursday before it moves to the Senate.