The Federal Trade Commission yesterday unveiled a revamped online hub where victims of identity theft can file complaints and receive a personalized recovery plan to regain control of their personal and financial information and accounts.
[ Related: Identity theft hit 7% of U.S. population last year ]
At IdentityTheft.gov, consumers can navigate through a series of questions about how their information was compromised (e.g. data breach, lost wallet, etc.) that will then produce a list of steps to take to mitigate the damage from the identity theft.
"The idea is that at a single location, a single site, consumers will be able to not only register a complaint with us at the FTC but then also to understand and see what steps they need to take in order to start the process of recovering their identity," FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez explained on a conference call with reporters.
The site, which also offers a feature to chat with FTC staffers, follows an executive order President Obama issued in the fall of 2014 calling on government agencies to take steps to shore up the financial transactions they process in an effort to safeguard citizens' personal information.
Combatting identity theft, which has been on a dramatic rise, has become a major priority at the FTC, according to Ramirez. The Justice Department reported 17.6 million cases of identity theft in 2014. Last year, the FTC received more than 490,000 complaints about stolen identities, up 47 percent from 2014 and only a tiny fraction of the actual number of cases that occurred owing to widespread underreporting.
"These numbers are striking in and of themselves, but beyond the numbers identity theft can be a difficult and challenging personal experience," Ramirez says, noting that it can often take several months or even years to recover from identity theft.
She attributes much of the rise to the free flow of data around the Internet, with entire companies and business models built around harvesting consumer information. Add to that condition the steady march of data breaches, when a single hack or stolen laptop can put the identities of tens of millions of consumers at risk.
"We're all going more online we're all using mobile technology, so I think the more that consumer data just becomes the currency in today's world I think it's going to expose people and people's information to breaches and expose them to potential for identity theft," Ramirez says. "I do think that data security is one of the biggest challenges that we face as a society as data and the ubiquity of data transfer becomes even more commonplace."
Tax ID theft scams on the rise
Ramirez says that the largest and fastest-growing single type of identity theft involves tax scams, noting that the FTC has designated this week Tax Identity Theft Awareness Week. Consumers commonly learn about those scams when they go to file their taxes and are informed by the IRS that a return has already been submitted in their name, she says.
The FTC, which routinely urges companies to be mindful of consumers' data, to minimize data collection and secure the information that they do gather, says it is incorporating those approaches in its new website. Ramirez says that the site was built from the start with security in mind, and the commission will not ask users reporting an identity theft incident to provide sensitive information such as a Social Security or driver's license number.
The site does provide prefilled forms and draft letters that victims of identity theft can file with relevant law enforcement companies, credit bureaus, debt collectors and other firms they need to contact to untangle their accounts.
Eventually, the commission is hoping to achieve a direct interface with the credit bureaus to further streamline the process of reporting identity theft and minimizing the damage. As the site stands at launch, Ramirez pledges that it will dramatically simplify the response to a stolen identity by providing victims with the itemized list of the steps they need to take after an incident and sharing information with the commission's law-enforcement partners.