The Federal Trade Commission has launched a three-part initiative to help consumers combat identity theft. Identity theft occurs when con artists hijack a consumer's personal identifying information -- name, address, credit card or Social Security number -- and use the data to open new charge accounts, order merchandise, or borrow money. Consumers targeted by identity thieves usually do not know that they have been victims until the hijackers fail to pay the bills or repay the loans, and collection agencies begin dunning the consumers for payment of accounts they didn't even know they had. The Commission's actions follow Congress' mandate that the FTC be the nation's clearinghouse for ID theft information including consumer education and ID theft complaint data.
"When someone hijacks a consumer's identity, it can be a nightmare," said Jodie Bernstein, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "But there are some precautions consumers can take to help reduce the risk of identity theft. And when identity theft does occur, there are some actions consumers can take to mitigate the damage. We hope the initiatives we are announcing today will help give consumers the tools they need to help combat identity theft."
The FTC has installed a toll-free number, 1-877-IDTHEFT ( 877-438-4338) where consumers who have been victims of identity theft can report the crime and get advice from telephone counselors trained to provide assistance to ID theft victims. Under the provisions of the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998, the FTC is mandated to establish a national clearinghouse for ID theft complaint data. Using the data from ID theft victims, as well as data from other agencies such as the Social Security Administration that take ID theft calls, law enforcement agencies will be able to target prosecutions where they will be most effective, and the FTC can analyze the data to determine how best to cut down on ID theft.
The agency also has developed an online consumer complaint form located at www.consumer.gov/idtheft ID theft victims can enter their complaint data directly into the FTC's secure database from that site. The site also provides links to numerous consumer education materials, as well as state laws governing ID theft, articles, reports and testimony.
The third element of the FTC's ID theft program is a strong message to consumers on how to protect themselves against this pernicious form of fraud, and, if already victimized, how to limit the damage to their credit history and other critical information. As part of this campaign, the FTC announced today the release of a 21-page booklet that addresses identity theft. This publication, which is available through the www.consumer.gov/idtheft site covers a wide range of topics, including how identity theft occurs, how consumers can protect their personal information and minimize their risk, what steps consumers should take upon finding out they are a victim, and how they can correct credit-related and other problems that may result from identity theft. It also describes federal and state resources available to consumers who have particular problems as a result of identity theft.
To best protect against becoming an ID theft victim, the agency gives the following guidance:
- Be careful about giving out your personal information. For example, don't give out personal identifying information (SSN, date of birth, mother's maiden name) to someone over the phone (or the Internet) when you haven't initiated the transaction. And don't carry your Social Security card (or your children's SSNs) in your wallet.
- Put passwords (NOT your mother's maiden name) on credit card and bank accounts, to make it harder for an ID thief to make changes to, or "takeover," your account.
- Order your credit reports once a year from each of the three national credit bureaus. That way you're likely to catch any identity theft before it gets out of hand -- and not when you're waiting for a mortgage application to be approved.
If you discover that your identity has been stolen, the agency advises the following steps:
- Call the fraud departments of all three credit bureaus. Ask them to put a "fraud alert" on your file (this tells creditors to call you before they open any more accounts in your name). Also, ask for a copy of your credit report, and ask the credit bureau to remove any fraudulent or incorrect information.
- Contact the credit grantors involved - e.g., the bank or credit card issuers who opened the fraudulent account or permitted access to your existing account. Immediately close all affected accounts.
- Contact your local police, and ask to file a report. Even if the police can't catch the identity thief, having a police report can help you in clearing up your credit records later on.
The Commission intends to share its efforts with other agencies, consumer advocates, and private sector entities at the Department of Treasury's upcoming National Summit on Identity Theft, to be held in Washington on March 15 and 16. This event will focus on establishing public/private partnerships to help minimize the incidence of identity theft, track down and catch identity thieves, and help consumers who have already been victimized.
Copies of the consumer education materials are available from the FTC's web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC's Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580; toll free at 877-FTC-HELP (877-382-4357); TDD for the hearing impaired 1-866-653-4261. To find out the latest news as it is announced, call the FTC NewsPhone recording at 202-326-2710.
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