TOPEKA — Legislation to increase the penalties for identity theft wasn't Rep. Les Osterman's bill, but it just as well might have been.
Osterman personalized the legislation's intent Friday before the House passed it. He related his own experience when someone stole his credit card numbers and he had to spend $10,000 of his own money to pay off fraudulent charges and on lawyer fees to clear his name and credit rating.
"Eight years ago, I had it happen to me," Osterman said. And, he said, unless you've personally experienced it, "You don't know what it's like to have your name drug through the mud."
Osterman, a freshman Republican from Wichita, made his plea in support of House Bill 2008, which would make identity theft a "person" felony, rather than a "nonperson" felony as it is now.
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Under current law, a person who commits multiple identity thefts would be presumed to receive probation under the state's sentencing guidelines. The proposed change would result in presumptive prison time after the first offense.
Osterman said his identity ordeal began after he attended a Kansas City convention of Shriners, an international fraternity that raises money to provide free medical care for children through a network of 22 hospitals.
Osterman said he is active in the organization because it helped his family when he was stricken with polio in the 1950s.
But while Osterman was at the convention, someone swiped the numbers from two of his credit cards and used the information they gleaned to charge about $10,000 worth of gasoline and groceries, large quantities of men's and women's clothing, and a television, he said.
"Somehow, they scanned them, and I don't know how," he said.
They also changed his billing address to somewhere in North Carolina, so he didn't know about the charges until about 1 1/2 months after they occurred.
Osterman said that despite guarantees that card users aren't responsible for fraudulent charges, "you have to prove you did not do the charges," he said.
He said he was able to show he was in Colorado when about half the charges were run up — and the credit company absorbed those — but it wouldn't budge on the other half.
He said he spent about another $5,000 on a lawyer to fight the credit card company and file the paperwork to clear up his credit report.
The only opposition to HB 2008 centered on the cost of providing additional prison space.
Rep. Melody McCray-Miller, D-Wichita, said she agreed with the impulse to increase identity-theft sentences, but asked, "How are we going to pay for the (bed) impact?"
She noted that it costs about $25,000 a year to imprison one person. The supplemental note attached to the bill estimated that it would generate a need for nine new prison beds by 2013 and 23 by 2021.
Osterman said it's a price he's willing to pay.
"This is a problem that's happening quite a bit in our country today," he said. "You do something that bad to somebody — and basically they're ruining your freedom in reality — you need to spend some time in jail."