FTC adds tools for ID theft victims
Tax fraud, paycheck fraud surged in 2015
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission launched a new package of tools on its website Thursday for consumers to fight what was called an epidemic of identity theft.
"ID theft is one of our top consumer complaints," FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said in a press call announcing the initiative. "We understand how frustrating it can be to recover one's identity -- it can take several months."
New features at www.IdentityTheft.gov are designed to streamline the process of reporting the theft and restoring accounts and credit records, the agency said. The website walks users through the steps needed to recover their identity. It also helps generate affidavits and letters to send to debt collectors, credit bureaus, law enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service.
Spike in tax, wage ID
The FTC said it received 490,000 complaints about identity theft in 2015, a 47 percent increase from the year before. The increase was fueled partly by a spike in tax and wage ID theft, which occurs when criminals use your Social Security number to file for a tax refund or get a job.
The complaints represent only a fraction of the total volume of the problem, Ramirez said. The Justice Department estimates that 17.6 million Americans were subject to ID theft in 2014.
In a statement, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan called the federal Web tools an important resource "as identity theft has reached epidemic levels."
Computer breaches that expose consumers' account numbers or other sensitive data have become common. This week, Wendy's confirmed it is investigating a potential breach after security expert Brian Krebs reported that customers of the hamburger chain had experienced unauthorized use of their credit cards. There were 781 reported breaches in 2015 that exposed nearly 170 million records, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.
The FTC's consumer website includes information about filing an alert or freezing your credit reports to block thieves from opening new accounts in your name, Ramirez said.
To keep its own data safe, the FTC's website requires users to register, and they must use two-factor identification before accessing information. The site doesn't collect details such as Social Security numbers or driver's license numbers, the FTC said. The site is also available in Spanish.
Saying that credit card fraud differed markedly from tax ID theft and other forms of stolen identity, Ramirez stressed that the Web-based tools provide personal help tailored to an individual's experience by using a question-and-answer process.
"In certain situations it may be appropriate to make a complaint with your local police department," she said, adding that not every ID theft should involve law enforcement. "Consumers' experience varies dramatically."
The FTC uses complaint data to spot trends and respond with enforcement measures and education. Data is shared with about 2,000 partners in law enforcement and state consumer protection authorities.
Officials offered little hope that the tide of ID theft could be turned back. The FTC's five commissioners unanimously supported federal legislation to set standards for protection of consumer data and notify the public of breaches, but the measure has yet to gain approval.
"We're all doing more online, using mobile technology," Ramirez told reporters. "The more consumer data becomes currency in today's world, the more it's going to expose them to potential breaches and identity theft."
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