Today, the United States is facing an ever-growing number of identity theft crimes. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), nearly 10 million Americans suffered the consequences of this crime in 2004, and the commission received more than 5,000 telephone calls per week related to identity theft in 2005.
Actual numbers of identity theft victims are hard to determine because many individuals do not find out that they’ve been victimized until many months later, and it is estimated that many others never report the crime to the police, banks, or credit bureaus. According to the FTC, 38 percent of victims never informed anyone of their victimization.
These crimes present special challenges to victims, victim service providers, and legal services providers. Dubbed as the fastest growing crime, identity theft is so prevalent and hard to pin down that providing victims and victim service providers with guidance is essential to combating this steadily increasing problem. Because every case is so different and each state has its own laws regarding identity theft and fraud, no single way exists to address the financial, emotional, and legal needs of the victims. Depending on the type of theft, victims may spend months trying to clear their credit and names. It is crucial that victim service providers throughout the country use consistent practices and provide victims with accurate information when dealing with the repercussions of identity theft.
In this electronic publication, four grantees (the Identity Theft Resource Center; the Victims Initiative for Counseling, Advocacy, and Restoration in the Southwest; the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc.; and Atlanta Victim Assistance) team up to present varied approaches to helping victims of these crimes.
About This E-Pub
Identity theft and financial fraud are rapidly growing and increasingly common crimes, but relatively few resources exist to prepare victim service providers to help victims of these crimes. Although identity theft is considered a nonviolent crime, victims often report that they suffer trauma similar in intensity to that of violent crime—feeling violated, confused about how to get help, and no longer in control of their lives. Added to this emotional trauma is the burden of having to prove one’s innocence.
Traditional VOCA-funded programs have not included victims of identity theft and fraud. And victim service providers do not commonly offer services to these victims due to lack of available training, limited funding, and/or failure to recognize the seriousness of this type of victimization.
To help address this situation, OVC provided funding to four grantees for establishing or expanding victim services to victims of identity theft and fraud, including setting up program infrastructure, training volunteers and staff, and public outreach. Each of the grantees offered many self-help materials to enable victims to become better advocates for themselves. This e-publication showcases the efforts of the Identity Theft Resource Center; the Victims Initiative for Counseling, Advocacy, and Restoration of the Southwest; the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc.; and Atlanta Victim Assistance to develop or expand their services to victims of identity theft. It also offers practical guidance to other victim service providers seeking to provide similar services.
U.S. Department of Justice
Office of Justice Programs
810 Seventh Street NW.
Washington, DC 20531
Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Laurie O. Robinson
Assistant Attorney General
Joye E. Frost
Acting Director, Office for Victims of Crime
Office of Justice Programs
Innovation • Partnerships • Safer Neighborhoods
Office for Victims of Crime
This product was supported by grant numbers 2007-VF-GX-K038, 2007-VF-GX-K032, 2007-VF-GX-K033, and 2007-VF-GX-K031 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Message From the Director
Every day, identity theft and financial fraud claim more victims. Many of these victims experience the crime as a personal violation. They often have no idea where to turn for help, may be traumatized by the sudden loss of control over their lives, and face having to prove their innocence.
Although identity theft and financial fraud are on the rise, victims are not yet in the mainstream of VOCA-funded victim assistance programs, nor have they traditionally been a priority for law enforcement, whose cooperation with victims reporting the crime is essential before legal remedies can be put into action.
OVC has increased its focus on these underserved victims, providing funding to expand existing services to victims and strengthen law enforcement’s response across the Nation. The President’s Task Force on Identity Theft was established in 2006. The following year, OVC awarded four 2-year grants under the National Program to Directly Assist Victims of Identity Theft and Financial Fraud to enhance direct services to victims, train service providers and allied professionals, and promote awareness of victims’ rights and needs and of services that are available in their communities.
This e-publication summarizes the efforts of these grantees to expand the reach of their services at the national, regional, state, and local levels: the Identity Theft Resource Center; the Texas Legal Service Center/Victims Initiative for Counseling, Advocacy, and Restoration of the Southwest; the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc., and Atlanta Victim Assistance, Inc. Their collective work has resulted in a heightened awareness of the challenges unique to this type of victimization and how to respond more effectively to the ever-increasing number of victims. This document includes background information, victims’ experiences, and a number of practical tools to set up program infrastructure; train staff, pro bono attorneys, law enforcement, and other professionals; equip victims with information to help themselves; and stage an effective public awareness outreach—all without a major outlay of financial or human resources. It is our hope that, in sharing the work of these grantees, many more victim service organizations will be inspired to expand their reach to help remediate the devastating impact of identity theft and financial fraud on the millions of Americans who fall prey to this insidious crime every year.
Joye E. Frost
With the support of the Office for Victims of Crime, the Identity Theft Resource Center; the Victims Initiative for Counseling, Advocacy, and Restoration of the Southwest; the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc.; and Atlanta Victim Assistance worked in conjunction with other national and local agencies to serve victims of identity theft and financial fraud. The funding awarded to the four grantees (at the national, regional, state, and local level, respectively) was used to enhance existing practices to provide free assistance to victims of identity theft and financial fraud through increasing direct victim services, encouraging self-advocacy and pro bono attorney development, providing victims with legal representation at the state and federal levels, and increasing public outreach. Each of these grantees offers a wealth of resources for victims, service providers, and the public on identity theft and fraud.
- Identity Theft Resource Center
- Victims Initiative for Counseling, Advocacy, and Restoration in the Southwest
- Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc.
- Atlanta Victim Assistance, Inc.
The Identity Theft Resource Center® (ITRC) is a national nonprofit organization "dedicated exclusively to the understanding and prevention of identity theft." ITRC provides free victim and consumer support as well as public education. The center also advises governmental agencies, legislators, law enforcement, and businesses about identity theft.
ITRC educates consumers, provides individual casework services, and disseminates research through its Web site, call center, and publications. The grant from OVC enabled ITRC to significantly expand its efforts on behalf of identity theft victims. In addition to improvements in methods, protocols, and knowledge, the grant enabled ITRC to begin to mentor other victim advocate agencies nationally.
Scope of Services Provided by ITRC
- Published Identity Theft: The Aftermath 2008, the sixth in a series of studies conducted by ITRC.
- Maintained and updated more than 280 identity theft/fraud-related documents on its Web site. The site received nearly 20 million hits in 2008 and more than 2.8 million page views.
- Enhanced Web site navigation by including a Document Catalog button for quick access to fact sheets, solutions, and letter forms; "Help, I’m a Victim of Identity Theft" fast link for victims; victim "Triage Page" with direct links to important documents.
- Participated in more than 80 presentations and training and community events on identity theft in 2008.
- Responded to more than 12,900 individuals looking for victim assistance and information.
- Provided victim advocacy training to various law enforcement agencies and other identity theft victim advocates, as requested.
Texas Legal Services Center (TLSC) created the Victims Initiative for Counseling, Advocacy, and Restoration of the Southwest (VICARS) to assist victims of identity theft and financial fraud in a four-state region including Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado. Since its formation in 1977, TLSC has been providing services to poverty law advocates and crime victims, including those victimized by caretakers in residential facilities. The center hosts a statewide legal hot line for seniors.
With funding from OVC, VICARS sought to accomplish several goals: increase the number of victims in the region who are able to recover their identity or money stolen through fraud and to restore their lost credit and increase the number of victim service providers who can offer direct services to victims of identity theft and fraud.
The center focused on individuals ages 18–29 and those who were elderly and/or had disabilities (15% of clients were under the age of 30; 27% were over 60).
During the grant funding period, VICARS responded to the needs of those affected by identity theft and financial fraud by—
- Providing direct services to approximately 12,000 clients through its dedicated phone line and Web site to aid in their recovery.
- Developing and disseminating more than 3,000 identity theft recovery toolkits.
- Developing and disseminating more than 25,000 identity theft brochures.
- Educating more than 601,000 people on understanding and protecting themselves against identity theft.
- Training more than 300 service providers and allied professionals to recognize and assist victims.
- Reaching 597,000 readers, listeners, and viewers through educational media efforts.
- Collaborating with scores of law enforcement agencies, financial institutions, victim assistance programs, and social service agencies to enhance awareness about and improve competency in addressing this crime.
The Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc. (MCVRC) was founded by Roberta and Vince Roper after their oldest daughter, Stephanie, was brutally murdered in 1982. Over the past 30 years, MCVRC has provided criminal justice education, court accompaniment, therapeutic counseling, support groups, community education, prevention education, legal information and assistance, direct legal representation, policy advocacy, technical assistance for allied professionals and criminal justice agencies, and faith-based referrals. The center has been instrumental in passing more than 70 pieces of state legislation.
MCVRC works with local, state, and national agencies to assist victims of crime. The center trains local law enforcement, recruits and trains pro bono attorneys, directly represents victims, and has created an identity theft and fraud victim resource packet for consumers. MCVRC also worked closely with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the United States’ Attorney’s Office to educate the public about the pervasiveness of these crimes.
With OVC grant funding, MCVRC was able to increase community and state awareness for victims of identity theft and fraud and the victim service providers who help them and to expand their service delivery portfolio to include the provision of direct victim assistance services to victims of identity theft and financial fraud.
During the grant period, MCVRC has implemented a project that involved multiple fronts. The center—
- Designed a training protocol for law enforcement and other agency sites (click here to see protocol [PDF 1.6 mb]);
- Provided identity theft and fraud trainings to local and state police;
- Recruited and trained pro bono attorneys; and
- Teamed with a local identity theft group that gave presentations to multiple senior centers.
For more than 25 years, Atlanta Victim Assistance, Inc. (AVA) has provided services to more than 100,000 victims of crimes. As a vital liaison between the City of Atlanta Solicitor’s Office, the City of Atlanta Municipal Court, and the Atlanta Police Department, AVA’s certified, bilingual advocates and highly trained volunteers offer immediate onsite crisis intervention with first responders and offer victim support throughout the criminal justice process to ease the transition from victim to victor.
Atlanta Victim Assistance advocates for the fundamental rights of victims through five distinct approaches: the organization stabilizes lives, meets victims’ emotional needs, reinforces victims’ safety and security, provides courtroom and criminal justice advocacy, and raises awareness about public safety and policy through community education. AVA’s work is guided by the Georgia Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights, Section 17-17 ACOG.
Atlanta Victim Assistance ensures that family survivors of victims of homicide and the victims of child abuse, domestic violence, identity theft/bank fraud, and sexual assault have access to comprehensive services that ease their transition from victim to victor. Although AVA serves victims of a broad range of crimes, in an average year, 60 percent of the victims the organization serves are involved in cases related to domestic violence charges. More specifically, Atlanta Victim Assistance—
- Provides crisis intervention and emotional support.
- Accompanies victims to court and serves as a victim designee in court proceedings.
- Provides assistance in filing temporary protection orders or bond orders.
- Monitors a victim’s case and notifies the victim of updates.
- Offers referrals to a network of direct service providers for such services as one-on-one counseling or emergency shelter.
- Assists in filing victim compensation.
- Organizes support groups for survivors and victims of homicide and domestic violence.
In response to the murder of her son, Executive Director Brenda Muhammad has built a local agency with national prominence and worked to influence public policy. As one of the longest serving directors of a victim assistance agency nationally, Brenda Muhammad has been instrumental in establishing the national victims bill of rights and national funding for victim compensation and helped to launch victim assistance programs across the Nation.
In 2009, the grant from OVC enabled AVA to launch Project SAFE (Stop Atlanta Fraud Empower) to provide citizens of Atlanta with information and resources on identity theft. (Read more about this project in the "Public Awareness" section.)
Overview of Project SAFE Campaign Accomplishments
- Partnered with 14 of Atlanta’s top civic and community leaders and organizations.
- Launched Project SAFE Web page as a one-stop shop for victims of identity theft; the site includes many self-help forms and publications, campaign materials that can be adapted for other victim service providers, and a video about identity theft. The site received more than 2,000 hits to its Web page since the August 2009 launch.
- Achieved more than 5 million media impressions through educational outreach efforts including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Atlanta Daybook, a local online newswire; all four local network television affiliates; and local weekly and minority publications.
- Developed and disseminated more than 20,000 Project SAFE: Fight Identity Theft campaign brochures, postcards, and posters featuring images of everyday Atlantans and public officials who were victims of identity theft or bank fraud.
Identity Theft and Financial Fraud
Identity theft and fraud are crimes in which an impostor gains access to key pieces of personal identifying information (PII) such as a Social Security number (SSN) and driver’s license number and uses them for personal gain or to commit other criminal activities. In the case of true name identity theft, the thief goes beyond stealing the victim’s assets and actually assumes his or her identity. Identity theft may begin with a lost or stolen wallet, pilfered mail, a data breach, a computer virus, phishing, a scam, or paper documents thrown out by an individual or a business and retrieved by a thief (dumpster diving).
Defining Identity Theft
Identity theft and fraud comprise a wide array of crimes committed under vastly different circumstances. These crimes may include check fraud, credit/debit card fraud, immigration fraud, postal fraud, medical fraud, outright theft of various kinds (pick pocketing, robbery, burglary, or mugging to gain a victim’s personal information), and criminal activities ranging from counterfeiting and forgery to using a stolen identity to commit acts of terrorism (Newman and McNally, 2005). It may even involve combining personal information from several victims to create a fictitious identity (synthetic identity theft), which is not always detectable by the consumer(s) whose information was used.
Currently, the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network, which houses the Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse, is the most comprehensive database on consumer fraud and identity theft. Yet even this resource doesn’t capture every instance of identity theft, such as complaints about misuse of driver’s licenses received by Departments of Motor Vehicles.
Over the years, differing viewpoints from law enforcement, businesses, advocates, legislators, and special interest groups have emphasized one or another subcategory of identity theft and fraud, specifically financial identity theft. And because the crime is so varied, it’s been difficult to come up with a clear, cohesive definition of identity theft. This becomes even more challenging as new categories of identity theft arise. Until recently, little attention was given directly to identity theft victims and the myriad consequences they suffer from this crime. Their needs have often been secondary to those of businesses that have been defrauded.
Growing Trends in Identity Theft
Today, criminals continue to find opportunities to exploit their victims through the lack of security measures for protecting personal identifying information. Personal data is widely scattered with much of it outside an individual’s control. Nationwide databases, IT security issues, and continuous requests for Social Security numbers only add to the vulnerability of personal information. Consumers now fear that the question isn’t "Will I become a victim?" but when.
According to a 2010 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, in 2007, "7.9 million households, or about 6.6 percent of all households in the United States, discovered that at least one member had been a victim of one or more types of identity theft."
- The number of households with at least one member who experienced one or more types of identity theft increased 23 percent from 2005 to 2007.
- From 2005 to 2007, the number of households that experienced credit card theft increased by 31 percent and the number that experienced multiple types during the same episode increased by 37 percent.
- During the 6-month period in 2008 for which identity theft victimization data was collected as part of the regular National Crime Victimization Survey, 3.3 percent of households discovered that at least one member had been a victim of one or more types of identity theft (BJS [PDF 170 kb], 2010).
While the Internet has helped to disseminate information about identity theft and how individuals may avoid victimization, it has also made it easier for criminals to obtain sensitive information about other persons’ identities. Legislation has struggled to keep pace with the expanding avenues that criminals are exploiting, such as cyberspace.
Two prime areas of growth are employment-related and medical identity theft. Fraudulent employment is a problem that arises, in part, from systematic weaknesses in authenticating and verifying identity on the part of many businesses. Because a Social Security number (SSN) is required to obtain employment, a booming business has sprung up in selling SSNs to individuals without legal status as well as others. The growth in this crime is reflected in the Social Security Administration’s Earnings Suspense File, which shows a large increase in the misuse of SSNs for employment purposes.
Medical identity theft was rarely mentioned several years ago. Today, it has become a much more serious problem. According to the Federal Trade Commission, individuals may discover that they are victims of medical identity theft when they—
- Get a bill for medical services they didn’t receive;
- Are contacted by a debt collector about medical debt they don’t owe;
- Order a copy of their credit report and see medical collection notices they don’t recognize;
- Try to make a legitimate insurance claim and their health plan says that they have reached their limit on benefits; or
- Are denied insurance because medical records show a condition they don’t have.
While the financial aspects of medical identity theft may be readily resolved, the more complex issues of mixed medical records are not so easily remedied. Some current laws (HIPAA) and health provider administrative protocols may prohibit victims from gaining access to their own records and minimize their ability to correct erroneous information. Today’s economic climate, combined with the lack of access to healthcare among many Americans, has made medical identity theft much more desirable to the identity thief who needs these services. For more about avoiding this crime, visit the FTC’s medical identity theft page.
Benefit fraud, criminal identity theft, and intergenerational identity theft are areas of growing concern. Benefit fraud, such as collecting someone else’s unemployment and welfare benefits, may be committed due to inadequate authentication and verification efforts on the part of businesses. Unfortunately, victims only discover this crime at the time they themselves need those services.
Criminal identity theft is relatively easy to commit by simply providing someone else’s name and birth date. Thieves are aware that all incriminating evidence will point back to the victim—not at the perpetrator. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, criminal identity theft occurs when an imposter provides another person’s name and personal information (such as a drivers’ license, date of birth, or Social Security number) to law enforcement during an investigation or upon arrest. The identity thief may also have possession of counterfeit documents that use another person’s data. Or he or she may simply claim to be another individual without showing any photo identification.
In many cases, the imposter is cited for a traffic violation or a misdemeanor. He or she signs the citation and promises to appear in court. If the imposter does not appear in court, the magistrate may issue a bench warrant, but the warrant of arrest will be under the victim’s name. In other cases, the imposter will appear in court for the traffic or misdemeanor violation and plead guilty without the victim being aware of this event, thereby establishing a criminal record for those actions in the victim’s name. In cases in which the imposter is arrested for a felony or another serious public offense, such as a DUI, the information will be recorded in the countywide database and is usually transferred to the State’s criminal records database. From there, it is forwarded to the national crime index database, at the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
Criminal identity theft is usually not discovered until the victim—
- Fails a criminal background check;
- Cannot renew his or her driver’s license;
- Receives notice of outstanding citations or warrants; or
- Is arrested.
(For more about criminal identity theft, see ITRC’s fact sheet on the subject.)
Family identity theft, sometimes called intergenerational identity theft, may be the easiest of these crimes to commit, because the perpetrator has ready access to the victim’s personal information. Identity theft among family members is frequently regarded as a personal family matter, not a crime. However, this crime leaves victims feeling as though they had been victimized twice—first by the family member, and then by the system, which will not help them unless a police report is filed. Discord among family members is common in these types of cases.
In fact, a 2006 FTC study indicated that 16 percent of victims knew the identity of the thief, who turned out to be a family member, roommate, neighbor, coworker or employer, or some other acquaintance (Synovate 2007). Identity theft among family members often occurs when one of the parents misuses the PII of their child or a grown child misuses the PII of an elderly parent. Using the Social Security number of a child gives a thief a long window of opportunity before the crime is likely to be discovered. (Read more about children and identity theft.)
Another area of concern is the nature and complexity of organized crime (both in the United States and abroad), which has embraced identity theft for its low-risk profitability and the relatively minimal penalties imposed if convicted. Professional criminals also find identity theft easy to commit. These crime rings may be international in scope, cover numerous judicial jurisdictions, and can be hard to prosecute. The use of technology and the ready availability of equipment to make new identification cards or print realistic driver’s licenses, as well as other high-tech resources, are enabling this crime to grow rapidly.
Federal Identity Theft Laws
Legislative efforts to create federal identity theft laws must balance the competing needs of victims, government agencies, and businesses, yet stay flexible enough to anticipate future identity crime issues.
Prior to 1998, crimes that would now be considered identity theft were charged under "false personation" statutes, which go back to the late 19th century. False personation can be defined as "the crime of falsely assuming the identity of another to gain a benefit or avoid an expense."
It wasn’t until Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 that identity theft was officially listed as a federal crime. The act strengthened the criminal laws governing identity theft. Specifically, it amended 18 U.S.C. § 1028 ("Fraud and related activity in connection with identification documents") to make it a federal crime to—
knowingly transfer or use, without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law. (See http://www.ftc.gov/node/119459.)
The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act accomplished four things:
- It made identity theft a separate crime against the individual whose identity was stolen and credit destroyed. Previously, victims had been defined solely by financial loss and often the emphasis was on banks and other financial institutions, rather than on individuals.
- It established the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as the Federal Government’s one central point of contact for reporting instances of identity theft by creating the Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse.
- It increased criminal penalties for identity theft and fraud. Specifically, the crime now carries a maximum penalty of 15 years imprisonment and substantial fines.
- It closed legal loopholes, which previously had made it a crime to produce or possess false identity documents, but not to steal another personal’s personal identifying information.
Over time, state legislative bodies also started to pass laws that helped victims, and these laws ended up being the basis for many national laws years later. As most crimes are prosecuted on the state level, these laws came to have a significant positive impact on victims.
Other federal laws have been enacted to address the growing complexities surrounding identity theft and fraud. These include the following:
Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA)
The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (15 U.S.C. §§ 1692-1692p, as amended by Pub. L. 109-351, §§ 801-02, 120 Stat. 1966) prohibits debt collectors from using unfair or deceptive practices to collect overdue bills that a creditor has forwarded for collection.
Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) of 2003
FCRA is the law governing the accuracy and privacy of credit reports. FACTA amended the Fair Credit Reporting Act in 2003 to strengthen and add to the protections for victims of identity theft. These laws require consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) and creditors to help victims recover from identity theft, and allow consumers to place alerts on their credit files if they are or believe they may become victims of identity theft (fraud alerts). Consumers have the right to dispute inaccurate information, and CRAs and creditors must investigate the claim and correct information if it is inaccurate. The laws also entitle consumers to a free credit report once per year from each of the three credit reporting agencies. As part of the responsibilities under FACTA, the Federal Trade Commission and the federal financial agencies established "Red Flag Rules" requiring creditors and financial institutions to establish programs designed to address identity theft.
Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act of 2004
This act (Pub. L. 108–275 § 1028A) establishes penalties for "aggravated" identity theft, which is using the identity of another person to commit felony crimes, including immigration violations, theft of another’s Social Security benefits, and acts of domestic terrorism.
Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act of 2008
This act amends 18 U.S.C. § 3663(b) to make it clear that restitution orders for identity theft cases may include an amount equal to the value of the victim’s time spent remediating the actual or intended harm of the identity theft or aggravated identity theft. The new law also allows federal courts to prosecute when the criminal and the victim live in the same state. Under previous law, federal courts only had jurisdiction if the thief uses interstate communication to access the victim’s PII.
Federal Privacy Laws
Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994
The Driver’s Privacy Protection Act puts limits on disclosures of personal information in records maintained by state departments of motor vehicles.
Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act puts limits on the disclosure of educational records maintained by agencies and institutions that receive federal funding.
Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999
Health Information Portability and Accountability Act of 1996
The privacy rule regulates the security and confidentiality of patient information. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a final Security Rule in February 2003, which sets national standards for protecting the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of electronic protected health information.
The Victim Experience
Victims of identity theft are often victims of multiple crimes and may be unable to clearly define what has happened to them or how it happened. They may be confused or even paralyzed by the experience.
Victims can suffer far more than the loss of their money or ruin of their credit. Loss of employment and inability to obtain housing are just a few examples of how identity theft can threaten a victim’s basic needs, not to mention the outstanding criminal warrants that can be issued against a victim. Knowledgeable victim assistance is absolutely necessary to help the victim to mitigate his or her case. In recent years, many new laws protecting personal information, blocking negative credit that results from victimization, and strengthening criminal penalties have been passed, but more work remains to be done. Until that time, victims will need assistance from victim advocates to help them to navigate the remediation process. More about Federal Identity Theft Laws.
Businesses, Not Individuals Are Considered the Primary Victim
Even worse, identity theft victims are sometimes not recognized by law enforcement and others as victims of a crime. Instead, the service or business that was defrauded using the victim’s identity is considered to be the primary victim, and the person whose identity was stolen often has to prove his or her innocence. If the first efforts at resolving a victim’s case fail, there are few clear-cut secondary remedies or recourse for the victim to take. The ultimate decision to clear the responsibility for monetary fraud from the victim is left up to the creditor.
Necessity of Obtaining Police Reports
When the victim cannot obtain a police report or a letter of clearance from a business, it is extremely difficult to pursue an identity theft case. The Identity Theft Resource Center’s publication, Identity Theft: The Aftermath 2008, reported that almost 20 percent of the respondents had already spent nearly 2 years involved with their case (ITRC, 2009).
In the past, several factors have made it difficult for victims to obtain police reports. Identity theft is often imbedded within other crimes and is not recorded separately. Furthermore, there may be cross-jurisdictional confusion about who is responsible for recording a crime that originated in one place but may have spread over multiple jurisdictions. There is also a misperception among some law enforcement officials that identity theft is not a crime but a matter for enforcement through the civil justice system.
Many victims are unable to resolve their cases because they are unprepared or uninformed on how best to communicate with law enforcement or governmental agencies. In addition, some law enforcement or governmental officials do not have the necessary training, resources, or materials to assist victims of identity theft. These two complicating factors are still far too common and can stop cold victims’ efforts to restore their reputations and credit.
Recently, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other groups have taken steps to introduce reporting and recording rules that will help victims to get police reports (Newman and McNally, 2005).
A Role for Victim Service Providers
Until a network of law enforcement agencies, government agencies, and businesses come together to establish the processes necessary to consistently mitigate more complex cases, it will be necessary for well-trained victim advocates to be available for the victims. These advocates must be knowledgeable in all areas of identity theft and have significant resources made available to them in order to correctly defuse these complex cases. They must have access to extensive knowledge about and experience with resolving a wide array of identity theft issues, coupled with the desire to follow up with victims over extended periods of time. Continuous education and training are a requirement for advocates to remain effective with each new development. As the crime changes, so too must the advocate. Finally, even as society makes attempts to reduce the prevalence of this crime, keeping the focus on the victims of identity theft and financial fraud and improving resources for them should not be overlooked.
The following stories illustrate some of the experiences of victims of identity theft and the victim service providers who attempt to help them.
Case 1: Standing Up to Family
One victim was forced to make a painful decision when her younger sister informed her that she had been stopped by Atlanta police after running a stop sign. As the younger sister was driving with a suspended license and risked being arrested on the spot, she lied and gave the officer the victim’s name, address, and other personal information instead of her own. The sister also expected the victim to plead guilty to the charges and pay the fine for the moving violation, an infraction which would mar her otherwise clean driving record and most likely double her insurance premiums.
The victim’s case was referred to Atlanta Victim Assistance, Inc., which often handles similar cases of identity theft involving family members who don’t think twice about using a relative’s identity to avoid criminal charges or to open accounts with utility companies.
With assistance from AVA, the victim was able to prove that the signature on the traffic ticket did not match her own, testify in court that she had been wrongly charged, and had charges against her dismissed. Her sister was sentenced to 21 days in jail.
Case 2: Fraudulent Company Costs Victims Their Homes
Some identity theft and fraud cases involve large victim populations. In one such case, a group of individuals formed a company created specifically to defraud victims. The company preyed on home owners who had some equity in their home. The victims signed paperwork to have loans drawn on the equity in their homes. Then, the fraudulent company forged documents and brought in straw buyers, and then sold the victims’ homes out from under them. Victims only found out about the loss when foreclosure notices came to their addresses in other people’s names. Since their names were no longer on their homes because deeds had been forged removing them from the property, they were unable to take any actions to save their property or the equity in their homes. The victims have now lost their homes and all equity in them.
The Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc. assisted one of the victims in federal court. The center requested restitution for her losses and the ability to submit a victim impact statement. Staff from the center also attended all sentencing hearings with the victim.
Several federal laws protect victims of identity theft. These laws have to do with documenting the theft; dealing with credit reporting companies; dealing with creditors, debt collectors, and merchants; and limiting a victim’s financial losses caused by the theft of his or her identity. The FTC provides a brief summary of the rights of identity theft victims, with links to Web sites that provide more information.
The Crime Victims’ Rights Act
In addition, victims of crime have certain rights in court, guaranteed by the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004 or CVRA. CVRA is a key component of the Justice for All Act (H.R. 5107, Public Law 108-405), enacted on October 30, 2004.
CVRA (18 U.S.C. Section 3771) establishes the rights of crime victims in federal criminal proceedings and provides mechanisms for enforcing these rights. It is the result of years of hard work by many individuals and is an important first step toward achieving justice for victims of crime. Section 3771 (a) of CVRA amends the federal criminal code to grant crime victims specified rights, including the following:
- The right to be reasonably protected from the accused.
- The right to reasonable, accurate, and timely notice of any public court proceeding or any parole proceeding involving the crime, or of any release or escape of the accused.
- The right not to be excluded from any such public court proceeding, unless the court, after receiving clear and convincing evidence, determines that testimony by the victim would be materially altered if the victim heard other testimony at that proceeding.
- The right to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding in the district court involving release, plea, sentencing, or any parole proceeding.
- The reasonable right to confer with the attorney for the Government in the case.
- The right to full and timely restitution as provided in law.
- The right to proceedings free from unreasonable delay.
- The right to be treated with fairness and with respect for the victim’s dignity and privacy.
Victims’ Rights in State Court
Because each state has different laws on identity theft, it can be challenging for victims and victim service providers to deal with police and creditors in different states and difficult to find a specific state’s law on identity theft.
- The National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Check Fraud Center provide a list of the current applicable laws in each state regarding identity theft.
- The Identity Theft Resource Center has a list of applicable laws and available resources in each jurisdiction, by state.
Victim Assistance: Lessons From the Field
This section provides examples of how each of the grantees structured their services to victims of identity theft and fraud and offers guidance to other victim service providers who wish to do the same.
- Protecting Victims’ Privacy
- Creating Self-Help Materials for Victims
- Developing an Intake Process for Case Management
- Case Handling and Documentation
- Legal/Pro Bono Representation
- Training for Victim Service Providers and Allied Professionals
- Building Partnerships
- Public Awareness and Outreach
- Tools/Resources for Victims
Protecting Victims’ Privacy
Even before an organization begins to develop its strategies for serving victims of identity theft and fraud, it first needs to focus on developing policies and procedures for protecting victims’ privacy. Victims of identity theft have already had their privacy breached; they need to have confidence in an organization’s ability to protect them from further harm.
Creating Self-Help Materials for Victims
Once privacy policies are in place, the next major task is to develop self-help materials for victims. The rationale for this is that many if not most victims could repair their credit and recover money lost to identity theft if they had step-by-step instructions.
The Identity Theft Resource Center provides consumer education and individual casework and disseminates research through its Web site, call center, and publications. It also provides a wealth of fact sheets and other self-help publications that victims can download on such subjects as what victims need to know, victims’ rights under the law, assessing the damage, and terminology victims need to know. Through its emphasis on self-advocacy, the center empowers victims to take charge of their own cases. Its Web site houses a broad array of resources for victims, service providers, and the public on such topics as scam alerts, the Data Breach List, Lost/Stolen Wallets, Medical Identity Theft, Beginning Steps for Victims of Financial Identity Theft, Victim Impact Studies (statistics), and Identity Theft in the Workplace.
One grantee developed a simple checklist that could be used to track a victim’s progress and keep track of his or her time and expenses. VICARS obtained permission to use relevant materials from the FTC and ITRC to develop its own checklist or Action Plan (PDF 181 kb), which can be modified for other organizations. The Action Plan was also translated into Spanish. VICARS found it helpful to package its materials in two-pocket folders and have victims keep originals in one pocket and copies in the other with the Action Plan affixed in the center.
Several of the grantees found that clients were often able to assist themselves with only limited direction from grantee staff members by making use of toolkits and other materials created on their Web sites. See, in particular, the Identity Theft Resource Center’s extensive index of fact sheets for victims. Staff could also track client progress through regular followup phone contacts.
AVA Services to Victims
Over the past 20 years, Atlanta Victim Assistance has increased its direct services to victims of crime by providing first responder services; keeping victims informed of the status of their cases; providing crisis intervention and emotional support; offering support groups for the survivors of victims of homicide and domestic violence; and providing education on the criminal justice process to victims.
AVA’s speakers’ bureau fulfills requests for its advocates and volunteers to attend neighborhood and community meetings, schools, businesses, and violence prevention fairs. AVA provides the following services to help victims have smoother experiences:
- Information about the status of court cases.
- Notice of court proceedings, including charges.
- Information about criminal justice proceedings.
- Companionship during court appearances and to provide emotional support.
- Victim referrals to social services agencies.
- Intervention with employers to explain time missing from work due to court appearances.
- Assistance if the victim is being intimidated or harassed about serving as a court witness.
- Aid in recovery of stolen property being held as evidence.
AVA’s Project SAFE includes a triage and tracking center that assesses calls to its helpline. Its advocate assists victims of identity theft and bank fraud by helping to file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Atlanta Police Department. The advocate also helps victims correct their credit reports and provides them with referrals to the appropriate agencies.
Developing an Intake Process for Case Management
A basic intake process can be performed by a trained non-lawyer, who collects contact information and some demographic information including age, gender, primary language, ethnicity, and approximate household income. Information of this nature is helpful to the grantee for sustainability planning. For example, some funding sources require means testing, and being able to provide information about the number of low-income victims in a geographic area can lead to the award of funding to provide services to those victims. VICARS uses demographic information to spot trends among victim populations to see whether certain types of people are being targeted within its service area. In one case, several victims who were school employees from one school district called VICARS for help. The organization was able to assist the callers in investigating and ultimately learning that their employer had dumped payroll records, which led to their identities being stolen.
Another reason to collect basic information about each case of identity theft is because the extreme emotions and overwhelming nature of this crime often make it difficult for many victims to tell their story concisely and in an organized way, VICARS developed a set of four intake questions designed to assist victims in organizing their thoughts:
- When did you realize that you were a victim of identity theft?
- How did you find out that you were a victim?
- What identifying information was stolen or used, and how was it used?
- Do you have any idea who committed the crime or how it happened?
In thinking about the answers to these questions, victims are able to organize their thoughts in a cohesive way that allows them to put together a more complete picture of their situation. Intake workers can be trained to follow up these basic questions with questions that probe more deeply into individual circumstances.
Volunteers and staff at organizations providing services to victims of identity theft and fraud should receive substantive in-house training in handling these cases before taking telephone calls from victims. Training might cover crime victims’ rights at the federal and state levels, federal and state civil laws that are relevant to identity theft victims, and how to help victims deal with the emotional impact of the crime. OVC TTAC’s online trainings for crime victim advocates is also an excellent resource for victim service providers.
Case Handling and Documentation
This section examines case handling and documentation from VICARS’ perspective. Basic case handling begins with intake. After intake, each caller is given a toolkit and basic advice for using it. (See "Tools/Resources for Victims" for toolkit examples.) The caller is advised that a followup call will be made within a few weeks and is asked to obtain and review a credit report and to make a police report before the followup. Followup calls are made to the client 14 to 30 days after the toolkit is sent and periodically thereafter as long as the client needs help. At each client contact, the case is reviewed to see whether the client needs additional assistance or representation. An attorney (staff or pro bono) is assigned to the case when needed. The need for consistent followup cannot be overstated. Identity theft is the crime that keeps on giving to its victims. Frequently, victims find that as soon as one account is cleared, others pop up. Many victims also find themselves fighting to clear the same account repeatedly when creditors sell bad debts or when creditors change collection agencies.
Case handling was documented in a case management database. (VICARS uses Kemp’s Caseworks PRIME running on an SQL server.) Staff members were required to keep detailed notes about each client contact and each action taken on behalf of a client.
Legal/Pro Bono Representation
The American Bar Association recently released a recommendation urging bar associations and lawyer referral services to establish programs for pro bono representation of victims of identity theft, including the development and dissemination of materials for use in such programs.
To develop a pro bono program, victim service organizations must first be able to locate and educate targeted groups of pro bono attorneys. In the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc. experience, there were not enough victims’ attorneys to assist the countless victims of identity theft and fraud, and few attorneys who had an appropriate level of expertise. The center also found that a need existed for attorneys to assist victims—but not necessarily to represent them in court—through writing letters on their behalf and representing them with credit bureaus, creditors, or collection agencies.
- Offering Technical Assistance to Attorneys Regarding Identity Theft
- Offering Legal Services to Identity Theft Victims—VICARS Experience
MCVRC provided a toll free number so that the center could offer technical assistance to attorneys. After contacting interested participants, MCVRC created a training packet that included—
- The applicable state law where the training was being held, along with federal laws and regulations.
- Information that taught attorneys to keep a log of all contacts and people spoken to when assisting victims.
- Contact information for key personnel at all credit agencies, bureaus, and banks.
- MCVRC’s Victim Resource Packet, which is modeled after the FTC information packet.
- Relevant information from other agencies.
- An outline of pro bono training and a CD–ROM of the pro bono resource book created by the FTC.
- MCVRC’s identity theft and fraud brochure and contact information.
Partners will usually come from other experts in the field such as the FTC, Attorney Generals’ Offices, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, and other white-collar crime organizations. MCVRC focused on collaboration with the FTC, using and gaining familiarity with materials that the commission provided. MCVRC also contacted the State’s Attorney’s Office to get permission to include the office in training and created a reference database for attorneys who were willing to offer pro bono time for victims.
Conducting Pro Bono Trainings—MCVRC’s Experience
Advertise and hold trainings. (See sample pro bono flier [PDF 143 kb].) Give training credits in states where applicable.
In its pro bono trainings, MCVRC addresses the various types of identity theft, actions that victims can take, actions that attorneys and advocates can take in assisting victims, and how to prevent identity theft in the future. (See MCVRC pro bono presentation [PDF 8.1 mb].) The presentation also includes a basic outline on victims’ rights. MCVRC often collaborates with the FTC, which covers federal identity theft laws and how they work, including the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, in its portion of the presentation.
It’s often productive to have participants complete a short survey at the end of the training. The survey can be designed to elicit what participants found beneficial, what they learned, and how the training program could be improved for the future.
(See sample pro bono survey [PDF 336 kb].)
MCVRC also found a way to use technology to help pro bono attorneys and identity theft victims who lacked attorneys to assert their federal rights. Both MCVRC and VICARS reviewed and contributed to materials for pro bono attorneys that were developed by the FTC. Both OVC grantee organizations have worked with Pro Bono Net to make the materials available to pro bono attorneys throughout the United States as HotDocs, or automated practice documents, which pro bono attorneys will be able to modify to assist victims of identity theft regarding their rights under federal law.
Beyond making this material available to pro bono attorneys, a further goal in the field is to make available technology that allows victims of identity theft to self help though software-created interviews known as A2J Guided Interviews.® (For further information, see http://www.lawhelp.org/ and http://www.kentlaw.edu/cajt/A2JAuthor.html.) Allowing pro bono attorneys to use HotDocs and allowing victims to use A2J, will make it simpler and easier for identity theft victims to assert their rights under federal law.
Not all victim service providers offer legal services to victims, however, several of the grantees did so. VICARS, for example, used the services of licensed attorneys, including pro bono attorneys who donated their time and expertise to the project. Every victim who contacted VICARS spoke directly with an attorney or with staff supervised by an attorney. At a minimum every case was reviewed by an attorney and, depending on the client’s needs, legal intervention and representation was available. In 100 percent of the cases in which a perpetrator was identified and prosecuted, VICARS staff assisted the victim in preparing a victim impact statement and submitting it to the probation department or district attorney’s office.
For clients whose health, language barriers, or case complexity prevented them from advocating with creditors, businesses, or law enforcement, VICARS’ attorneys provided services ranging from telephone calls to letter writing and more. VICARS’ attorneys represented victims who had been sued by creditors or bill collectors over accounts that were opened by identity thieves. They also represented victims in criminal proceedings to enforce their rights (e.g., the right to make a victim impact statement and the right to restitution) and filed original lawsuits for victims who needed court orders to clear public records or who needed court orders declaring them to be victims of identity theft.
Some of the ways in which pro bono attorneys can aid victims included the following:
- Assisting victims in making reports to the police, financial institutions, credit card companies.
- Advising victims about emergency financial needs.
- Compiling and reviewing documentation.
- Providing clear instructions and sample forms for reporting fraud/identity theft.
- Assisting victims with obtaining and reviewing credit reports.
- Helping victims in filing disputes.
- Assisting victims in reporting fraud.
- Assisting with followup to credit reporting services, banks, and creditors.
- Negotiating with creditors and collection agencies.
Training for Victim Service Providers and Allied Professionals
Below is a sampling of training programs and ideas offered by the grantees. The materials provided here can be adapted for use by other victim service providers or law enforcement personnel.
Because victim service providers possess basic knowledge about victims’ rights in the criminal justice system, many of the grantees focused on training service providers to recognize identity theft, to assist victims in changing habits to minimize re-victimization, to understand the emotional impact of the crime, and to assist victims in using federal and state civil laws to recover financially. VICARS’ staff, for example, presented numerous trainings to victim service providers, as well as to advocates, attorneys, nurses, social workers, law enforcement, and benefits counselors. VICARS developed a basic presentation (PDF 1.7 mb) that could be tailored to each audience.
The Identity Theft Resource Center provides trainings to a wide variety of groups, from notaries and bankers’ associations to law enforcement and fraud investigators, to the U.S. Customs Service and the Social Security Administration. (See also the extensive trainings offered by OVC TTAC for victim service providers, including its new identity theft-specific training for service providers.)
In recent years, law enforcement has become more willing to help victims learn about identity theft and to make "first step" brochures available to their local communities, but chronic budget issues make it difficult for many law enforcement agencies to train and adequately staff an identity theft unit, provide victim advocates, and distribute community outreach materials. (For more about successfully partnering with law enforcement, see AVA’s experience in the "Building Partnerships" section.)
Because of the nature of identity theft, many cases go uninvestigated or unsolved. Unfortunately, victims do not always realize what is necessary to bring an offender to justice and can become extremely frustrated with law enforcement. It’s essential for law enforcement to gain the trust and cooperation of the victim. Toward achieving this goal, the Identity Theft Resource Center provides a wide array of fact sheets and tools for law enforcement to help them to better understand what victims need to move forward in their cases. The center also provides training to law enforcement.
Since the beginning of the grant period, ITRC has referred hundreds of criminal identity theft cases to various law enforcement agencies. The center has frequent contact with law enforcement throughout the Nation, and initiates contact with one or more law enforcement agencies for each criminal identity theft case.
Profiling MCVRC’s Experience With Law Enforcement Training
An important aspect of assisting identity theft victims involves developing a relationship with law enforcement officials, who play a key role in resolving identity theft issues. The Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc. collaborated with law enforcement agencies to educate and train officers about identity theft and on how they can assist victims.
Obtaining Proper Certification
The Maryland Police and Corrections Training Commission allowed an attorney from MCVRC to participate in one of its 7-day, intensive Enhanced Instructor Training Programs. This program teaches instructors how to train law enforcement officials through adult learning techniques and methods.
After obtaining the proper certification from the commission, MCVRC created an identity theft presentation tailored to law enforcement agencies’ in-service trainings. The presentation dealt with law enforcement’s responsibilities to identity theft victims under state and federal laws. It also developed assessment techniques to measure participants’ understanding of the materials.
- Sample Law Enforcement Training Program
- Sample Test Assessment provided at the end of the presentation
Implementing the Program
MCVRC, along with the Federal Trade Commission, Maryland Vehicle Administration, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and detectives from local law enforcement, participated in a law enforcement training program on identity theft conducted by the State of Maryland at various locations. The program was designed to—
- Provide an overview of identity theft.
- Help law enforcement appreciate the needs of victims of identity theft.
- Help law enforcement recognize the importance of filing a police report.
- Make law enforcement aware of the resources available to victims of identity theft.
One of the challenges for victim service organizations that plan to offer presentations on identity theft to law enforcement is to help officers to see identity theft as more than a property crime. In addition, the importance of filing a police report and providing a copy of the report to the victim must be emphasized to officers.
As a consequence of the training, the center found that law enforcement officers were more likely to provide identity theft victims with a copy of the police report and to be more sensitive to the needs of these victims. MCVRC also noted an increase in victim referrals by police officers who attended the trainings.
Law Enforcement Resources
Several of the grantees partnered with federal and state agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, and state attorneys general. Others partnered with legal aid or law enforcement. They each also forged partnerships with the other three grantees, handling identity theft cases cooperatively when appropriate and offering joint community presentations and trainings.
Victims Initiative for Counseling, Advocacy, and Restoration of the Southwest, for example, partnered with the legal aid organizations in its four-state service area. VICARS executed memorandums of agreement with these partners describing the responsibilities of each organization for case handling, outreach, and support. VICARS held an in-person training session for its partners and developed procedures for reporting and for referring cases to one another as well as for jointly handling matters when best for clients. Its staff also offered almost 50 trainings and workshops, reaching more than 1,100 participants, and gave speeches to approximately 70 law enforcement and court personnel. The organization trained more than 200 criminal justice and victim services professionals.
Atlanta Victim Assistance advocates principally serve clients of cases adjudicated through the City of Atlanta Municipal Court. AVA partnered with the Atlanta Police Department to address a critical gap that affects victims of crime whose perpetrators have not been identified. Each year Atlanta’s needs in this area continue to grow. The Atlanta Police Department responds to approximately 30,000 incidents of violent crime per year. AVA’s partnership with the Atlanta Police Department allows the organization to provide more "hands-on" activities, such as crisis intervention at the crime scene and response to a 24-hour help line. Advocates work directly in the police zones, responding to calls, assessing victims’ needs, and providing pre-case intervention and followup. Having advocates in police zones can facilitate an organization’s community outreach efforts, which may include providing awareness and education programs to neighborhood associations and schools or to immigrant populations.
The Identity Theft Resource Center served as the "go to" place for many agencies needing assistance with serious identity victim mitigation needs. ITRC established an operational agreement with the County of San Diego District Attorney’s Office—Underserved Victim Advocacy and Outreach Program (UVAOP)—to work together toward the mutual goal of providing maximum available assistance for victims of elder financial abuse in San Diego County.
ITRC also served as a resource for a large volume of escalated cases referred by the FTC. It worked directly with the FBI, Secret Service, the Social Security Administration, and other law enforcement agencies around the country in responding to victim referrals. In addition, ITRC worked collaboratively with various agency representatives in assisting them in their efforts to provide high levels of victim assistance, which included the use of all ITRC documents.
Public Awareness and Outreach
It’s important to get the word out about how your organization can inform the community and help victims of identity theft. Several of the grantees increased public awareness by developing ID-specific brochures, PowerPoint presentations, videos, and Web sites with downloadable forms and fact sheets.
- Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc.
- Atlanta Victim Assistance’s Project SAFE
- Building Public Awareness—VICARS
- Identity Theft Resource Center
MCVRC created a brochure designed specifically for helping identity theft and fraud victims. The brochure briefly describes what to do if you are a victim of identity theft (e.g., filing a fraud alert, filing a police report, closing accounts) and how MCVRC can help. The brochure proved to be one of the most popular handouts at community events because so many people have either been a victim or know someone who has been a victim of identity theft.
MCVRC suggests that once a victim service organization has developed an identity theft brochure, it may want to distribute the brochure to local police stations, senior centers, and libraries. It is also useful to send a cover letter and the brochure to other service providers, explaining how the organization is assisting victims of identity theft and fraud.
In August 2009, Atlanta Victim Assistance launched Project SAFE—a coalition of public and private organizations committed to arming citizens of Atlanta with the information, tools, and resources needed to combat identity theft and protect them from becoming victims.
Based on research on identity theft trends within the City of Atlanta, AVA leadership and staff identified three target audiences for the media campaign: millennials (Generation Y), baby boomers, and seniors. These target demographic groups are vulnerable to identity theft for different reasons, and their media consumption habits are also often dissimilar. The campaign is expressly tailored to reflect those differences.
The centerpiece of Project SAFE is "Fight Identity Theft," a public service ad campaign that uses promotional materials featuring a series of real‐life identity theft victims, armed with boxing gloves to symbolize how these victims took action and have emerged as victors. (Visit the Project SAFE Web page for more about the initiative and to download consumer ID theft forms, brochures, press materials, and newsletters; watch a video; or take an interactive ID theft quiz.)
AVA used the following means to publicize its Project SAFE campaign and they can be adapted for use by other organizations. The organization ran ads on Atlanta’s Rapid Transit Authority rail system for 30 days; placed ads on Google’s search engine for 3 months; and made use of social media like Facebook to encourage interest in the campaign. The organization also added an interactive page on its Web site for the campaign that includes links to its partner organizations and to credit reporting agencies, a hotline for consumers, as well as the materials noted above for downloading. (See "Tools/Resources for Victims" section.)
VICARS developed brochures, a Web site, a self-help video, and a consumer guide (PDF 2 mb) that could be used for outreach and building public awareness about both its services and identity theft in general. Initial outreach was targeted to persons, agencies, and organizations that would be likely to encounter victims, including police departments, sheriff departments, U.S. Attorney Generals’ field offices, and Social Security offices. VICARS also conducted outreach to agencies and nonprofit organizations likely to encounter at-risk populations such as older individuals.
The organization also made presentations at senior nutrition centers, community centers, crime victim rights events, financial fitness events, assisted living and senior living centers, and other community events. Presentations focused on general awareness of identity crimes, changes in habit necessary to avoid victimization, scam-proofing, how to report an identity theft crime, how to recover from identity theft, and what resources are available to victims.
ITRC participated in numerous community events, presentations and trainings. To meet growing national needs, ITRC developed and provided a general Identity Theft 101 presentation for use by law enforcement agencies from around the country. In addition, a handout was made available to any community group or law enforcement agency. This handout outlines the first steps necessary for a victim of identity theft. ITRC worked with other national nonprofit agencies, such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, in efforts to further drive the educational efforts on what to do if you are a victim of identity theft, scams, and other identity theft-related issues.
Tools/Resources for Victims
The following step-by-step approach comes from the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc., but each of the grantees includes information of a similar nature for victims on their Web sites. This material can be adapted for use by other victim service providers.
- Steps for Victims of Identity Theft or Fraud
- Fraud Alerts and Credit Freezes
- Victim/Service Provider Guides and Presentations
- Federal Contacts
Steps for Victims of Identity Theft or Fraud
If you are a victim of identity theft remember that when dealing with the authorities and financial institutions, it is very important to keep a log of all conversations, including dates, names, and phone numbers. Be sure to note time spent and any expenses incurred, in case you are able to request restitution in a later judgment or conviction. Make sure you confirm conversations in writing and send all correspondence by certified mail, return receipt requested. Keep copies of all letters and documents. MCVRC has an Identity Theft & Fraud Victim Resource Packet to help you keep track of information.
- Place a fraud alert on your credit report.
- Close out accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
- Report the identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission.
- File a report with your local police department.
Place a fraud alert on your credit report. Fraud alerts can help prevent an identity thief from opening any more accounts in your name. Contact the toll free fraud telephone number of any of the three consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) below to place a fraud alert on your credit report. You need only contact one of the three CRAs to place an alert. That company is required to contact the other two, which will place alerts on their versions of your report, too. If you do not receive a confirmation from a company, you should contact that company directly to place a fraud alert.
Once you place the fraud alert in your file, you’re entitled to order one free copy of your credit report from each of the three CRAs, and, if you ask, only the last four digits of your Social Security number will appear on your credit reports. Once you get your credit reports, review them carefully. Look for inquiries from companies you haven’t contacted, accounts you didn’t open, and debts on your accounts that you can’t explain. Check that information like your Social Security number, address(es), name or initials, and employers are correct. If you find fraudulent or inaccurate information, get it removed.
Continue to check your credit reports periodically, especially for the first year after you discover the identity theft, to make sure no new fraudulent activity has occurred.
Consumer Reporting Agencies (CRA’s)
P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
Web site: www.equifax.com
P.O. Box 9701, Allen, TX 75013-0949
Web site: www.experian.com
P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834
Web site: www.transunion.com
Close the accounts that you know or believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Call and speak with someone in the security or fraud department of each company. Follow up in writing and include copies (NOT originals) of supporting documents. It’s important to notify credit card companies and banks in writing. Send your letters by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can document what the company received and when. Keep a file of your correspondence and enclosures.
When you open new accounts, use new personal identification numbers (PINs) and passwords. Avoid using easily available information like your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.
If the identity thief has made charges or debits on your accounts or has fraudulently opened accounts, ask the company for the forms to dispute those transactions. For charges and debits on existing accounts, ask the representative to send you the company’s fraud dispute forms. If the company doesn’t have special forms, use the FTC’s sample letter to dispute the fraudulent charges or debits. In either case, write to the company at the address given for "billing inquiries," NOT the address for sending your payments.
For new unauthorized accounts, you can either file a dispute directly with the company or file a report with the police and provide a copy, called an "Identity Theft Report," to the company.
If you want to file a dispute directly with the company and do not want to file a report with the police, ask if the company accepts the FTC’s ID Theft Affidavit (PDF, 56 kb). If it does not, ask the representative to send you the company’s fraud dispute forms.
The statutory procedures for disputing fraudulent accounts and clearing credit reports are not easy to follow, and if a victim fails to follow the procedure to the letter, then he or she may not get the help needed. VICARS attempted to distill the statutory procedures into a series of steps that could be followed in sequence. This consumer guide (PDF 2 mb) contains contact information for relevant law enforcement agencies, federal and state agencies, and other identity theft programs such as those offered by the grantees.
Filing a report with the police and then providing the company with an Identity Theft Report, however, will give you greater protection. For example, if the company has already reported these unauthorized accounts or debts on your credit report, an Identity Theft Report will require them to stop reporting that fraudulent information. Use the cover letter to explain to the company the rights you have by using the Identity Theft Report.
Once you have resolved your identity theft dispute with the company, ask for a letter stating that the company has closed the disputed accounts and has discharged the fraudulent debts. This letter is your best proof if errors relating to this account reappear on your credit report or you are contacted again about the fraudulent debt.
Report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC will not investigate your case, but after making a report, it will enter your information into the Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse, a nationwide databank that assists law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of identity thieves. You can file a complaint online with the FTC. If you don’t have Internet access, call the FTC’s Identity Theft toll free hotline at 1-877-IDTHEFT (1-877-438-4338).
File a police report. When you speak to your local police department about filing your report, have a printed copy of your ID Theft Complaint form, your cover letter, and your supporting documentation. The cover letter explains why a police report and an ID Theft Complaint are so important to victims. (Additional instructions for filing a complaint form.)
Ask the officer to attach or incorporate the ID Theft Complaint into his or her police report. Tell the officer that you need a copy of the Identity Theft Report (the police report with your ID Theft Complaint attached or incorporated) to dispute the fraudulent accounts and debts created by the identity thief.
What do I do if the local police won’t take a report? There are efforts at the federal, state, and local level to ensure that local law enforcement agencies understand identity theft, its impact on victims, and the importance of taking a police report. However, we still hear that some departments are not taking reports. The following tips may help you to get a report if you’re having difficulties:
- Provide the officer with a copy of the Law Enforcement Cover Letter that explains why the police report and the Identity Theft Report are so important to both victims and industry.
- Furnish as much documentation as you can to prove your case. Debt collection letters, credit reports, a copy of your printed ID Theft Complaint, and other evidence of fraudulent activity can help demonstrate the legitimacy of your case.
Be persistent if local authorities tell you that they can’t take a report. Stress the importance of a police report; many creditors require one to resolve your dispute. Remind them that consumer reporting companies will automatically block the fraudulent accounts and bad debts from appearing on your credit report, but only if you can give them a copy of the police report. In addition, a police report may be needed to obtain the fraudulent application and other records the company has.
Fraud Alerts and Credit Freezes
What Is a Fraud Alert?
There are two types of fraud alerts: an initial alert and an extended alert.
- An initial alert—
- Stays on your credit report for at least 90 days.
- Is appropriate if your wallet has been stolen or if you’ve been taken in by a "phishing" scam.
- Potential creditors must use what the law refers to as "reasonable policies and procedures" to verify your identity before issuing credit in your name.
- You are entitled to order one free credit report from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies and, if you ask, only the last four digits of your Social Security number will appear on your credit reports.
- Stays on your credit report for at least 90 days.
- An extended alert—
- Stays on your credit report for 7 years.
- You can have an extended alert placed on your credit report if you’ve been a victim of identity theft and you provide the consumer reporting company with an Identity Theft Report.
- An automated identity theft report or the printed ID Theft Complaint available from the FTC or MCVRC should be sufficient to obtain an extended fraud alert.
- Potential creditors must actually contact you, or meet with you in person, before they issue you credit.
- You are entitled to two free credit reports within 12 months from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies.
- Stays on your credit report for 7 years.
To place either of these alerts on your credit report, or to have them removed, you will be required to provide appropriate proof of your identity: proof may include your SSN, name, address, and other personal information requested by the consumer reporting company. Depending on the type of fraud alert you place, potential creditors must either contact you or take reasonable steps to verify your identity. This may cause some delays if you’re trying to obtain credit.
What does a fraud alert not do? While a fraud alert can help keep an identity thief from opening new accounts in your name, it’s not a solution to all types of identity theft. It will not protect you from an identity thief using your existing credit cards or other accounts. It also will not protect you from an identity thief opening new accounts in your name that do not require a credit check, such as a telephone, wireless, or bank account. And, if there’s identity theft already going on when you place the fraud alert, the fraud alert alone won’t stop it. A fraud alert, however, can be extremely useful in stopping identity theft that involves opening a new line of credit.
What Is a Credit Freeze?
Consumers may "freeze" their credit by restricting access to their credit report. If you place a credit freeze, potential creditors and other third parties will not be able to get access to your credit report unless you temporarily lift the freeze. This means that it’s unlikely that an identity thief would be able to open a new account in your name. Placing a credit freeze does not affect your credit score—nor does it keep you from getting your free annual credit report or from buying your credit report or score.
Credit freeze laws vary from state to state. The ITRC provides a map with links available to the laws in each state. In some states, anyone can freeze his or her credit file, while in other states, only victims of identity theft can. The cost of placing, temporarily lifting, and removing a credit freeze also varies. Many states make credit freezes free for identity theft victims, while other consumers pay a fee—typically $10. It’s also important to know that these costs are for each of the credit reporting agencies. If you want to freeze your credit, it would mean placing the freeze with each of three credit reporting agencies, and paying the fee to each one.
Who can access my credit report if I place a credit freeze? If you place a credit freeze, you will continue to have access to your free annual credit report. You’ll also be able to buy your credit report and credit score even after placing a credit freeze. Companies that you do business with will still have access to your credit report—for example, your mortgage, credit card, or cell phone company—as would collection agencies that are working for one of those companies. Companies will also still be able to offer you "prescreened credit," the credit offers received in the mail that consumers have not applied for. Additionally, in some states, potential employers, insurance companies, landlords, and other non-creditors can still get access to your credit report with a credit freeze in place.
Can I temporarily lift my credit freeze if I need to let someone check my credit report? If you want to apply for a loan or a credit card, or otherwise need to give someone access to your credit report and that person is not covered by an exception to the credit freeze law, you would need to temporarily lift the credit freeze. You would do that by using a PIN that each credit reporting agency would send once you placed the credit freeze. In most states, you’d have to pay a fee to lift the credit freeze, and most states currently give the credit reporting agencies 3 days to lift the credit freeze. This might keep you from getting "instant" credit, which may be something to weigh when considering a credit freeze.
What is the difference between a credit freeze and a fraud alert? With a fraud alert in place, businesses may still check your credit report. Depending on whether you place an initial 90-day fraud alert or an extended fraud alert, potential creditors must either contact you or use what the law refers to as "reasonable policies and procedures" to verify your identity before issuing credit in your name. However, the steps potential creditors take to verify your identity may not always alert them that the applicant is not you.
A credit freeze, on the other hand, will prevent potential creditors and other third parties from accessing your credit report at all, unless you lift the freeze or already have a relationship with the company. Some consumers use credit freezes because they feel a freeze provides more protection.
As with credit freezes, fraud alerts are mainly effective against having new credit accounts opened in your name, but they are not likely to stop thieves from using your existing accounts or from opening new accounts, such as new telephone or wireless accounts, where credit is often not checked. Also, only people who’ve had their ID stolen, or who suspect it may have been stolen, may place fraud alerts.
Victim/Service Provider Guides and Presentations
The FTC’s Take Charge: Fighting Back Against Identity Theft Resource Packet
MCVRC’s Identity Theft & Fraud Victim Resource Packet
ITRC Document Catalog: Facts Sheets, Solutions, and Letter Forms
MCVRC’s Fight Back Against Identity Theft Brochure
VICARS Action Plan
VICARS Consumer Guide (PDF, 2 mb) (PPT, 1.4 mb)
Rising Tide: The Explosion of Identity Theft During Hard Economic Times—Locating Services for Victims (PDF, 1.7 mb) (PPT, 1.2 mb)
MCVRC’s Assisting and Educating Victims of Identity Theft and Fraud (PDF, 1.6 mb) (PPT, 152 kb)
MCVRC Identity Theft & Fraud Pro Bono Training (PDF, 8.1 mb) (PPT, 574 kb)
ITRC’s Identity Theft 101
ITRC’s Enhancing Law Enforcement and Identity Theft Victim Communications
Sample FormsExample of Pro Bono flier
Example of a Credit Bureau letter
FTC’s Remedying the Effects of Identity Theft
ID Theft Affidavit
Police Cover Letter
AVA campaign materials:
Federal Trade Commission. (2003). Federal Trade Commission 2006 Identity Theft Survey Report. McLean, VA: Synovate.
Identity Theft Resource Center. (2009). Identity Theft: The Aftermath 2008. San Diego, CA: Identity Theft Resource Center.
Langton, Lynn, and Katrina Baum. (2010). Identity Theft Reported by Households, 2007—Statistical Tables. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 230742.
Newman, Graeme R., and Megan M. McNally. (2005). "Identity Theft Literature Review." Final report to the National Institute of Justice. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, NCJ 210459.
- Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft Site
- National Crime Victims’ Law Institute
- For tips to help consumers minimize their risk
- For a list of consumer publications related to identity theft
- For information on national trends in fraud and identity theft complaints
- National Opt Out Hotline, Phone: 888-5OPT-Out (888-567-8688)
- Federal Trade Commission
- FBI/NW3C Internet Fraud Complaint Center
- Internet Fraud Prevention
- National Fraud Information Center, Phone: 800-876-7060
- U.S. Postal Mail Fraud Center, Phone: 800-372-8347
- Small Business Administration, Phone: 800-827-5722
- Office of Housing and Urban Development, Phone: 202-708-2700
- Department of Homeland Security
- Federal Information Center, Phone: 800-333-4636
- U.S. Department of Justice, Phone: 202-514-2000
- Annual Credit Report, Phone: 877-322-8228
- Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Administration, Phone: 800-269-0271
- IRS Tax Payer Advocates, Phone: 877-777-4778
National White Collar Crime Center, Phone: 8040-273-6932
International Association of Chiefs of Police, Phone: 703-836-6767 or 1-800-THE-IACP