As speech-related biometric technology joins the fight against identity theft, your credit card may start asking you to speak louder.

Most consumers, at one point or another, have thought about how easy it would be to steal an identity, particularly over the phone: You call your bank. To verify that you are who you say you are, a clerk asks for a Social Security number, address, date of birth, or account number. Fact is, a thief can get all that data by stealing a bank statement and talking to your friends. Then, he might order a credit card in your name or make money transfers out of your account.



Today’s mainstream biometric identification devices can’t prevent such mishaps. Few people have fingerprint detectors lying around the house. Ditto for face scanners, iris identifiers, and palm readers. Your birth date and Social Security number stand as your personal vault’s only guards — and not very good ones at that.



SWEEPING DEPLOYMENT? Fortunately, they’ll soon get some assistance. A number of companies, including IBM, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard, have recently developed new biometric software and devices designed specifically with the phone in mind. Their solutions to the phone-security conundrum range from embedding detectors such as fingerprint scanners right into mobile phones and personal digital assistants to using a promising new biometric technique called voice verification.



En-masse deployment of voice-verification technology could happen within a year, with sales of related software and devices expected to rise from $45.9 million last year, to $224.6 million in 2008, according to researchers at International Biometrics Group, an independent industry researcher. That could turn out to be a conservative estimate. “Today, the market for voice verification is smaller than [the $3.5 billion market] for voice recognition, but that could be changing,” says Alex Acero, a senior researcher with Microsoft’s speech technology group in Redmond, Wash. “There’s a lot more emphasis on security.”



With good reason. Over-the-phone fraud already affects 12% of all banks offering e-payment services, according to the American Bankers Assn. And the problem could worsen as consumers do more banking and shopping on the phone and online. To facilitate such transactions, cell phones and PDAs will likely contain more crucial personal information, such as credit- and debit-card numbers. With mobiles doubling as electronic wallets, the implications of losing them grow increasingly serious.



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