FTC Testifies on Identity Theft Initiatives

The FTC today told the Maryland Task Force on Identity Theft that public organizations, including federal, state, and local governments, “play a critical role in guarding against misuse and unauthorized disclosure of the personal information they collect and maintain.”

Speaking before the Maryland Task Force to Study Identity Theft, Betsy Broder, Assistant Director of the FTC’s Division of Privacy and Identity Protection said, “To succeed in the battle against identity theft, federal, state and local governments, working together with the private sector, must make it more difficult for thieves to obtain the information they need to steal identities, make it more difficult to use that information if they do obtain it, and assist victims when thefts occur.” The Maryland Task Force was established in 2005 to study the problems associated with identity theft in Maryland, consult with various entities, including the FTC, survey state agencies for compliance with laws regarding uses of Social Security numbers, and make recommendations for possible remedies to identity theft.

The testimony states that one way to combat identity theft is to assure that those who maintain sensitive personal information about consumers protect that data. “Since 2001, the Commission has brought 14 cases challenging businesses that allegedly failed to reasonably protect sensitive consumer information that they maintained.” While the cases were different and were brought under different laws enforced by the FTC, “the cases share common elements: the company’s alleged security vulnerabilities were multiple and systemic, and readily-available and often inexpensive measures were available to prevent them.”

According to the testimony, the Commission receives between 15,000 and 20,000 contacts a week from consumers who are seeking advice about how to recover from identity theft or consumers seeking advice about how to avoid becoming a victim. “The FTC’s identity theft primer and victim recovery guide are widely available in print and online. Since 2000, the Commission has distributed a total of 7 million copies of the two publications and recorded over 3.7 million visits to the Web versions.”

“The FTC also maintains the Identity Theft Data Clearinghouse, a national identity theft victim complaint database containing over a million complaints,” the testimony states. While the FTC does not have criminal authority, it “supports criminal law enforcement by making these complaints available to federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies nationwide, including over 20 agencies in Maryland alone.”

In May 2006, the President established an Identity Theft Task Force, co-chaired by the Attorney General and FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras, to develop a comprehensive, national strategy to combat identity theft and recommend ways “to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the federal government’s activities in the areas of identity theft awareness, prevention, detection, and prosecution.” The Task Force recommended 31 initiatives to reduce the incidence and impact of identity theft. “The recommendations focus on prevention through improvements in data security and more effective customer authentication procedures, victim assistance by ensuring victims have the means and support to restore their identity, and deterrence through stronger tools to punish the criminals to perpetrate this crime,” the testimony states.

The Task Force noted that both the public and private sectors should take proactive steps to improve their data security practices. The Task Force will “work with state and local governments . . . to highlight and discuss the vulnerabilities created by the use of SSNs and to explore ways to eliminate unnecessary use and displays of SSNs.”

According to the testimony, the Task Force report also recommended a number of steps
to assist consumers who have become victims of identity theft, including development of easy-to-use reference materials for law enforcers, implementation of a standard police report, and nationwide training for counselors at federal and state-sponsored victim assistance programs.

Finally the Task Force report “includes a host of recommendations for strengthening law enforcement’s ability to detect and punish identity thieves, including several aimed at providing assistance to state and local governments.”

The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, click http://www.ftc.gov/ftc/complaint.shtm or call 1-877-382-4357. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,600 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. For free information on a variety of consumer topics, click http://ftc.gov/bcp/consumer.shtm.

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