Having your identity stolen is headache enough. But after the shock of discovering someone has gotten a tax refund using your Social Security number or opened credit cards in your name and ordered champagne at the Ritz, the real frustration begins: wading through reports and records that need to be untangled to reclaim your identity.
Nat Wood and his team at the Federal Trade Commission designed IdentityTheft.gov,a one-stop online resource for anyone who has been a victim of identity theft. Instead of trekking to the police station to file a report, figuring out how to stop more fraudulent accounts from being opened and then thinking up what to write in letters to creditors, consumers now can find all the information they need on the FTC site. By entering details of how their identity was stolen, users can get a complete plan listing what they need to do next.
“We know that identity theft is really damaging to people, both financially and emotionally,” said Wood, associate director of the Division of Consumer and Business Education in FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Anything we can do to improve that, to reassure people it’s going to be okay and they’ve got some control, makes a big difference.”
Although the FTC has long worked to address the identity theft issue, Wood’s approach to look at the information from the viewpoint of the consumer, to put it into plain English and design a user-friendly website that provides user-specific recovery plans is new. The site is available in Spanish as well.
“It went from a system of good advice to a system of actual self-help, where people could use the tool to create the things that they would need to resolve their problem,” said Monica Vaca, the acting associate director of the FTC’s Division of Consumer Responsibility and Operations.
“It went from being fairly passive to being a true service to the American public. For someone who didn’t know what the next step was, it guides you through every step of the way,” Vaca said.
The website, launched in January 2016, is already getting good reviews from consumers like this unnamed victim: “Thank you for providing this service. It’s scary when someone steals your SS #, and this helps to provide a sense of security. It also helps show that our government can do positive things!”
The FTC website has received more than 500,000 identity theft reports since it went into operation last year. This number is likely to grow substantially in the years ahead given the estimated 15 million U.S. residents who have their identities used fraudulently each year, with financial losses totaling upward of $50 billion.
The website allows victims to file a complaint with the FTC, which is then available to police. That report can be used as proof of identity theft. The site also provides useful links and phone numbers for credit reporting companies and federal agencies. After consumers answer online questions about their specific cases, they can get a step-by-step guide of what to do next, including templates of letters to send credit card companies and debt collectors.
The site covers a range of situations, including a child’s identity being stolen, a Social Security number being used by someone else to get a job, credit accounts being opened fraudulently, and thieves stealing someone else’s identity to get a tax refund.
An added benefit of the website is that reports filed with the FTC count as law enforcement reports under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, making separate police reports unnecessary, so investigators can spend more of their time tracking down thieves instead of filing paperwork.
“Anything that helps regular people get over this problem and cuts down the amount of time that bad people can be stealing from them…it feels good to be doing that,” said Wood.
Wood and his team are now assisting the International Association of Chiefs of Police to update their model policy on identity crime to help thousands of police departments serve identity theft victims better. They also are coordinating with state attorneys general, governors, libraries, the military, senior centers and other community-based organizations to help people take steps to avoid identity theft and use the FTC website if it happens to them.
Wood, who has been with the FTC for 15 years, worked to create the website with a team from his office as well as members of the FTC divisions of Consumer Response and Operations, and Privacy and Identity Protection. During the design phase, the team interviewed more than 70 stakeholders, including victims, police and federal agencies.
Kathleen Benway, the Bureau of Consumer Protection’s chief of staff, said Wood did a great job getting input and buy-in from consumer groups and law enforcement. She also said he “let the people on his team who are talented and hard-working get out there, roll up their sleeves and do something great.”