Professor James Grimmelmann likes to shop at Kohl’s. So much so that he applied for credit at Kohl’s. And he got it.
The problem is that James Grimmelmann didn’t really apply for anything. It was an identity thief.
Grimmelmann was a participant in Chris Hoofnagle‘s study about identity theft. In a really eye-opening paper, Internalizing Identity Theft, 2010 UCLA J. of L. & Tech (forthcoming), Hoofnagle has concluded that one of the main reasons identity theft happens is because companies let it happen. It is an economic decision.
Back in 1981, in the famous case involving an accident due to a defect in a Ford Pinto, it came to light that Ford knew about the design defect in the car but ignored it because it calculated that paying damages in lawsuits would be less than fixing the design flaw.
Hoofnagle illustrates that the same phenomenon is happening with identity theft. Companies grant credit carelessly because it is cheap to do so. Much of the losses are sloughed off on victims because the companies aren’t forced to internalize them.
To illustrate how sloppy the granting of credit is, Hoofnagle supplies a copy of the Kohl’s credit application Grimmelmann’s identity thief used.
Notice how many errors are on the application. There’s a ton of missing information. And Grimmelmann’s name is even spelled incorrectly — though, in all fairness, it’s got way to many m’s and n’s to keep track of.
In his paper, Hoofnagle examines several case studies in addition to Grimmelmann’s to show how many obvious red flags in credit applications are ignored.
Hoofnagle demonstrates that identity theft is a product not of carelessness on the part of the credit industry, but the product of planned carelessness — more akin to intentional decisions than to foolish blunders.