By Joanna Crane, Identity Theft Program Manager, Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, Bureau of Consumer Protection; and Jennifer Leach, Consumer Education Specialist, Bureau of Consumer Protection, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C.
dentity theft has become a story of numbers: millions of victims, billions of dollars lost. But to police officers, that story comes person by person. Each of those victims has a story to share; each of those billions of dollars matters to people seeking help from a law enforcement agency.
Each month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enters, on average, 21,000 identity theft complaints into its Identity Theft Clearinghouse: complaints from a woman who found that an ID thief had a $100,000 business loan in her name; a man who discovered that someone had obtained a fake driver’s license, established power of attorney, and ultimately secured a mortgage for more than $400,000 using his name and information; and a man who uncovered his stolen identity when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tried to collect a debt from him because of a fraudulent tax return filed in his name. This man learned that there were over 10 credit card accounts in his name, as well as a new mortgage for over $300,000—all courtesy of the ID thief. Any law enforcement agency can probably match these stories with what it has seen and heard from victims.
Consumers who experience a serious identity theft look to police first for assistance; police are essential to the recovery of the victims who come to them. While law enforcement agencies work on the front lines of this battle, the FTC is working to better arm them with information and resources to make their job easier and to speed victim recovery. The FTC offers free tools, resources, a referral hotline, and other support that law enforcement agencies can use to help consumers.
One tool developed specifically for law enforcement agencies is a CD-ROM called Fighting Identity Theft: A Law Enforcer’s Resource.1 It includes both advice on helping victims and information to help ID theft investigators. As part of its advice for helping victims, the CD-ROM has a selection of sample letters that investigators and victims can use. For example, included are letters to businesses requesting that they provide, free of charge, all records related to the identity crime to the investigating agency and the victim without a subpoena. This is a right that Congress gave to victims and law enforcement agencies in 2003 when they amended the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
To help catch ID thieves, the CD-ROM shows how to gain access to the FTC’s Identity Theft Clearinghouse, which contains over 1.4 million searchable consumer complaints. The CD-ROM also provides links to federal and state laws related to identity theft, other resources for law enforcers, and contact information for individuals at the three credit reporting companies who can provide assistance to investigators.
The CD-ROM also contains a training kit to help put together community outreach programs about ID theft. The kit, called “AvoID Theft: Deter, Detect, Defend,” includes a victim recovery guide, a training booklet, a guide to talking about identity theft, presentation slides, an easy-to-read brochure, and a 10-minute video. Copies of the kit are also available online.2 The CDROM also has information to help agencies advise local businesses about data security.
This CD-ROM is not intended for a public audience but rather is provided to law enforcement professionals to aid in both assisting victims and investigation. To obtain a free copy of the CD-ROM, along with a poster of the FTC’s four essential steps for ID theft victims, please send an e-mail with “CDROM” in the subject line to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please place your order by May 1, 2008.
Another way the FTC is arming law enforcers and the public in the battle against ID theft is its Web site: http://www.ftc.gov/idtheft. The Web site answers questions about specific identity theft problems, provides information about staying safe in the online world, has up-to-date information on new identity theft laws, and contains links to other resources. Many of the resources on the law enforcement CDROM—and more—can be found in both English and Spanish on this site. Agencies can refer the general public and ID theft victims alike to this site to get answers to their questions; the site’s resources can also be used to help educate the public on avoiding ID theft. Finally, agencies can refer victims to the FTC’s ID Theft Hotline, 1-877-ID-THEFT (1-877-438-4338), where they can reach a counselor for assistance.
Helping Victims Recover
The FTC’s advice for anyone whose identity has been stolen to open new accounts or to commit other serious forms of identity theft starts with four basic steps. The FTC asks law enforcers to share this advice with victims because it allows them to take the actions necessary to start their own recovery:
- Victims should place a fraud alert on their credit report by contacting one of the three nationwide credit reporting companies. The company that is notified will alert the other two. It will also explain how to request a free copy of the victim’s credit report.
- Compromised accounts should be closed immediately. Once credit reports have been received, they should be reviewed for other accounts that might need to be closed.
- The identity theft should be reported to the FTC online at www.ftc.gov/idtheft or by calling 1-877-ID-THEFT. Victims should bring a copy of the completed, printed online complaint to their local law enforcement agency.
- A police report should be filed; victims should ask the officer who receives the report to attach a copy of the FTC complaint form to the police report.
Placing a fraud alert on credit reports and contacting the credit reporting companies makes it harder for ID thieves to use victims’ personal information, but it is the last two steps in the list that trigger many of their new rights. Here the role of the local law enforcement agency is critical.
In 2003, Congress revised the Fair Credit Reporting Act specifically to make certain police reports, those designated as “Identity Theft Reports,” central to proving the truthfulness of a victim’s claims. Before that time, it was the responsibility of ID theft victims to prove a negative: that they had not opened an account. Today’s victims have more power to recover from identity theft, but for many, their rights start with the police report written for them. They depend on law enforcement agencies to carry out the role that Congress gave them.
To make it easier for agencies to take reports with the kind of detail required in an Identity Theft Report, the FTC created a complaint form in partnership with experts from industry, the law enforcement community, and the victim advocacy community. ID theft victims fill in all the information they know about the crime, including dates, affected accounts, and individuals involved. They are not required to complete every part of the form. For example, many victims have no idea—and may never know—how their personal information was stolen or who was involved.
The FTC complaint form, when printed by a victim and brought to an agency, can help officers file a police report that is a complete record of the identity theft. It will include enough detail about the crime for the credit reporting companies and businesses involved to verify that the person reporting the crime is, indeed, a victim and to know which accounts and inaccurate information came from the identity theft. However, if the police department has a way to incorporate the details of the ID theft without this form, the police report may serve as an adequate Identity Theft Report.
Once the victim sends a copy of the Identity Theft Report to the credit reporting companies, that sets into motion a chain of events that allows the victim to claim certain rights under the law:
- Having credit reporting companies permanently block information resulting from the identity theft from appearing on the victim’s credit report
- Ensuring that debts caused by the thief do not reappear on the credit report
- Preventing companies from selling the debts resulting from the identity theft
Together, these steps restore the victim’s credit report to its precrime status. Perhaps one of the most important things investigators can do for victims is to give them a copy of their Identity Theft Report along with sample letters they can use with the credit reporting companies. The sample letters are included on the Fighting Identity Theft CD-ROM.
Working Together with Your Community
The process of recovery from serious ID theft is not easy, and there are no magic fixes. The free FTC educational kit and brochures can help agencies educate the community on how to protect against this crime. But despite the best efforts of the law enforcement community, no one can completely prevent ID theft. Even the most cautious consumer can be affected by a hacked system, a burglarized office, or information accidentally exposed to outside parties.
The law enforcement community remains essential to the recovery of those who are affected by serious ID theft. The local agency may be their first call and source of information. Its officers create the report victims need to activate many of their legal rights and protections. Agencies can help victims see the important role they play in their own recovery. They will need to make calls and send letters to the companies involved, asking for the appropriate corrections and deletions, and they will need to keep records of those conversations. They may have to be persistent in making sure their rights are respected.
The FTC will continue to seek opportunities to support law enforcement agencies and make their job easier while continuing to collect complaints and educate the public on avoiding ID theft. The more law enforcement agencies work in partnership with their communities, the greater a climate of trust and openness will be created among all affected by this crime. After all, each person helped along the road to recovery from ID theft is a win for the good guys, not to mention a life made less difficult. The FTC looks forward to working closely with the law enforcement community in this fight.¦
1Division of Privacy and Identity Protection, Federal Trade Commission, Fighting Identity Theft: A Law Enforcer’s Resource,CD-ROM (Washington, D.C.: Federal Trade Commission, 2007).
2The “AvoID Theft” kit is available at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/become-a-partner.html (accessed November 5, 2007).