dentity theft seems to be on everyone's radar screen. A 2003 study by the Federal Trade Commission found that identity theft affects almost 10 million consumers a year. Most states have enacted their own identity theft laws to assist law enforcement fight this crime.
When Congress criminalized identity theft in October 1998, it directed the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to establish a national program that included a centralized complaint and education service for victims of identity theft. Today, the FTC's Identity Theft Program attacks the crime on three fronts: it coordinates victim assistance and education efforts; it assists law enforcement by providing investigative resources and facilitating information sharing; and it promotes prevention efforts and best practices through industry outreach. These resources can make it easier for police to work with victims and investigate the crime. (continued on page 38) What's New
The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act), a new federal law, provides identity theft victims with important new rights and remedies. Although the identity theft provisions are mostly directed at victims' recovery, they affect how police officers deal with this pernicious crime. The law makes police reports more important than ever as a tool to help victims recover. That is because the new rights and remedies-such as blocking fraudulent trade lines on credit reports and obtaining the suspect's credit application-are available only to victims who present a police report to help prove that they are victims of fraud.
One provision of the FACT Act that simplifies the investigation of identity crime relates to the documents used to open fraudulent accounts. For example, if a company extends credit to a suspect using the victim's personal information, the victim now can obtain the identity theft related transaction records at no charge from that company-but only if the victim provides a copy of a police report and other required documentation. Law enforcement also benefit because investigators can get these documents without a subpoena if a victim authorizes, in writing, that the business send a copy of the records directly to the officer.
Police reports are the first step in helping identity theft victims clear their names and recover from identity theft. Here's what happens after a victim obtains a police report:
FTC Resources for Helping Victims
- Credit bureaus must block the reporting of inaccurate information identified by the victim as resulting from identity theft.
- Businesses where fraudulent accounts were opened must give victims (and police, at the victim's written request) copies of applications and business records relating to transactions that the victim identifies as resulting from identity theft. This means that law enforcement agencies can obtain these documents without a subpoena.
- Certain information on a credit report that a victim claims is inaccurate because of identity theft can no longer be reported by a business to a credit reporting company.
- The big three nationwide credit reporting companies (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) must place an extended fraud alert in the victim's credit file for seven years. It entitles the victim to free credit reports.
Because prevention is always the first line of defense, the FTC has created a virtual library of information about identity theft for the general public, as well as for law enforcement. These materials are available to police departments as they coordinate community outreach efforts. Local law enforcement outreach efforts to address identity theft can lead to real results. Law enforcement officers can take the following steps:
- Direct victims to the FTC's ID theft Web site at www.consumer.gov/idtheft, where they can learn how to minimize the effects of the fraud, and find the ID theft affidavit.
- Advise consumers to read ID Theft: What's It All About? and Take Charge: Fighting Back against Identity Theft. They can use the affidavit when disputing fraudulent accounts with the nationwide credit reporting companies or a business that extended credit to a suspect using the victim's name. Many companies and all three credit reporting companies accept the affidavit.
- Order publications and the affidavit from firstname.lastname@example.org. The publications also are available on CD-ROM; agencies can print them with their own logo.
- Download the materials on the FTC's Web site in English or Spanish.
- Encourage victims to file identity theft complaints with the FTC online at (www.consumer.gov/idtheft). Victims who don't have Internet access can call the FTC's toll-free ID theft hotline at 877-ID THEFT (TTY: 866-653-4261). It's open Monday to Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern Time.
Partnerships Are Practical
Since 1999 the FTC has developed and managed the nation's central repository of victim complaint data on identity theft. The Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse is part of the FTC's Consumer Sentinel system. It contains more than 700,000 identity theft complaints. In addition to the victim-reported complaints, the clearinghouse contains complaint data entered by police officers and representatives of state and federal agencies. Because it is the central source for identity theft complaints, the clearinghouse can facilitate cross-jurisdictional investigations and enable law enforcers across the country to spot trends and share critical information. For example, users can tag complaints with an alert to flag a particular suspect or address. If other clearinghouse users retrieve that complaint, they will know that a fellow officer may have more information about the tagged item and they will have that officer's contact information. The clearinghouse also allows users to review a group of complaints and spot trends or patterns that would not be apparent from one individual complaint.
The clearinghouse database has a custom search feature. For example, police working a case may have a cluster of suspect addresses. The FTC's identity theft investigator can search the clearinghouse to find additional information associated with those addresses. Or, in the course of an investigation, officers may discover a cache of social security numbers in a suspect's possession. The FTC can search the clearinghouse to see if it contains victim complaints associated with these numbers. If so, the FTC may be able to provide law enforcers with additional information. For help with a hot search, send an e-mail message to (email@example.com).
The FTC also has worked with the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other law enforcement organizations to offer regional one-day seminars across the nation to give law enforcement managers information and tools to help generate successful identity theft investigations. These workshops bring together police officers, prosecutors, representatives of state departments of motor vehicles, and industry fraud investigators to answer common questions: What information do I need to obtain from the victim? Whom should I contact for specific information? What tools can I use to investigate and build a case? What's the best way to package a case for prosecution? More than 1,800 law enforcement officers have attended these seminars to date. This year, training will be offered in Atlanta, Georgia; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Columbus, Ohio. ■