Baltimore lawsuit spotlights obscure identity theft law

An obscure provision of a federal law created to prevent identity theft has come under the spotlight in Baltimore, where a man has sued three area bars for violating the law's intent.

In three lawsuits filed last week in Baltimore's U.S. District Court, Ronald L. Bradley of Baltimore County contends that three bars — Kooper's Tavern in Fells Point, Poncabird Pub in East Baltimore and the Middle River bar and restaurant Catches — printed the expiration date of his credit card in sales receipts. Bradley says the bars violated the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, a federal law that gives consumers protection against credit card fraud and identity theft.

The lawsuit alleges that Kooper's "willfully violated this law and failed to protect [Bradley] against identity theft."

Consumer advocates say the lawsuits could cast light on a portion of the federal law that hasn't been widely discussed, but they also warned that the suits have some weaknesses.

Patrick Russell, who owns Kooper's, declined to comment on the lawsuit. The owners of Poncabird Pub and Catches could not be reached for comment.

The law, commonly referred to as FACTA, was passed in 2003 to protect consumers against identity theft, said Ed Mierzwinski, a consumer advocate with U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Mierzwinski said it was largely good news for average Americans because It had "one of the strongest consumer rights of any law."

One of its little-known provisions "addressed a big problem," said Mierzwinski — sales receipts that reveal too much information about consumers. The law requires businesses to abstain from printing more than five digits of a customer's credit card and the card's expiration date in sales receipts.

Many businesses were sued under the law, Mierzwinski said. But after Congress amended it in 2007, limiting what kind of lawsuits could be filed, litigation stalled. Since then, few similar lawsuits have been filed under FACTA, said Mierzwinski.

Linda Sherry, spokeswoman for consumer advocacy organization Consumer Action, also hasn't heard of any such complaints.

The practice of including expiration dates on credit card receipts as well as full credit card numbers is not widespread, she said. By now, most businesses have switched over to more modern machines that block both numbers.

Bradley's lawsuits hinge on the question of whether including just a credit card expiration date on a receipt makes a merchant liable for damages. He argues that the receipts "exposed" him to identity theft.

In the lawsuit against Kooper's, Bradley contends that the tavern printed the expiration date of his credit card on sales receipts from Oct. 30, 2010, and June 6, 2011.

Catches and Poncabird Pub allegedly did the same on receipts from June 5, 2010, and Oct. 9, 2010, respectively.

Bradley's attorney, E. David Hoskins of Baltimore, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Bradley is seeking statutory and punitive damages of at least $1,000 for each violation, as well as attorneys' fees.

If and when the case goes to court, a judge will have to decide whether the bars' inclusion of the expiration date on the credit card receipt, even if it did not include a full credit card number, was a willful violation, Mierzwinski said.

On the case's central argument — that Bradley was exposed to identity theft — the consumer advocates were dubious.

"The threat of fraud from printing an expiration date without also printing a full credit card or debit card number is a minor fraud threat compared to many others," Mierzwinski said.

Sherry said the lawsuit is a legitimate complaint if the bars involved aren't truncating credit numbers and also including the expiration date.

"If they're truncating numbers but still putting expiration date, the potential for damage would not be as great," she said. She was also concerned that Bradley had not shown any damages, which a court would likely require.

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