Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 5/21/2015.
Many years ago, my wife’s purse was stolen from her locked car while she walked at a Jackson-area park. She filed a police report, but never got back the cash and other items contained in the wallet. For the next couple of years, every time she bought anything on credit or had to show her personal identification, she had to relive the whole thing all over again and answer questions about why her license was “flagged”. The burglary probably took less than a minute, but the damage was long-lasting and went far beyond just losing cash and some credit cards.
Far from being a “victimless” crime, identity theft is a personal violation. Someone has taken your most important asset – your identity – and used it to create personal gain for themselves or criminal organizations. Although in many cases, the money stolen via identity theft can be replaced, it’s not as easy to restore your good name. Ultimately, once you find out you’ve been targeted, it can be a years-long, uphill battle to prove that you weren’t the one who charged all that merchandise on your credit card, or who opened up all those accounts and then failed to pay up.
Despite the fact that identity theft has been skyrocketing for the past two decades, it has often been difficult for consumers to know how to identify it, deal with it and repair the damage. As I’ve spoken to groups over the years about this topic, it’s apparent that there’s a lot of misinformation out there and a certain feeling of helplessness. In nearly every group, there are people who say their lives have been turned upside-down by some faceless predator who wrecked their credit, stole in their name and even got them in trouble with the law.
And adding to the confusion is the fact that there is now an entire identity-theft industry pitching all types of products and services – of varying levels of effectiveness — promising to prevent identity theft in the first place, help identify when a crime has been committed and to help you fix the damage. Some of these products are probably effective in helping identify when a crime has occurred and maybe to help educate you about the risk. But ultimately, repairing the damage by determined identity thieves is up to you, the victim.
The numbers around identity theft are staggering: back in February 2014, a report from Javelin Research found that 13.1 million people in the U.S. had been victims of identity theft. That amounts to about $18 billion stolen by identity thieves. That report did indicate that the total take by identity thieves was down somewhat from the previous year, probably due to better security measures. But the total number of people victimized has never been higher. This is often a global crime, transcending state and national borders.
In years past, the best way to respond to identity theft – once it’s been identified in the first place — was to file an affidavit with law enforcement at every level – local, state and federal – to get it on the record. Otherwise, you really couldn’t do a lot about it, other than contacting every creditor and institution to place yourself on their radar. Often, law enforcement often didn’t have the knowledge, tools or authority to help.
But a new website called Identitytheft.gov came online just last week, providing a sort of one-stop shop to help you respond should you become a victim. (A Spanish version is at RobodeIdentidad.gov.) Simple checklists on the site give you a roadmap of what to do, whom to contact and how to go about taking care of the many tasks required. There are also links to a lot of resources, such as lists of utility companies, credit card companies and government agencies.
The site also has tools specifically designed to help if you’ve been notified that your information may have been compromised in a data breach (such as the huge Target theft last fall), or if you’ve gotten the nasty surprise that someone has filed taxes in your name and absconded with your refund.
Ultimately, the site is a step in the right direction to helping give consumers some resources and assistance. But ultimately, when it comes to identity theft, there is no “silver bullet”; The best defense is educating yourself how to lower your risk, staying informed about your credit and financial accounts and having a plan to deal with it should an identity thief target you. A visit to the site (before you need it) may help you prepare yourself in case you need it one day.