Victim Assistance: Lessons From the Field
Legal/Pro Bono Representation
The American Bar Association recently released a recommendation urging bar associations and lawyer referral services to establish programs for pro bono representation of victims of identity theft, including the development and dissemination of materials for use in such programs.
To develop a pro bono program, victim service organizations must first be able to locate and educate targeted groups of pro bono attorneys. In the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center, Inc. experience, there were not enough victims’ attorneys to assist the countless victims of identity theft and fraud, and few attorneys who had an appropriate level of expertise. The center also found that a need existed for attorneys to assist victims—but not necessarily to represent them in court—through writing letters on their behalf and representing them with credit bureaus, creditors, or collection agencies.
- Offering Technical Assistance to Attorneys Regarding Identity Theft
- Offering Legal Services to Identity Theft Victims—VICARS Experience
MCVRC provided a toll free number so that the center could offer technical assistance to attorneys. After contacting interested participants, MCVRC created a training packet that included—
- The applicable state law where the training was being held, along with federal laws and regulations.
- Information that taught attorneys to keep a log of all contacts and people spoken to when assisting victims.
- Contact information for key personnel at all credit agencies, bureaus, and banks.
- MCVRC’s Victim Resource Packet, which is modeled after the FTC information packet.
- Relevant information from other agencies.
- An outline of pro bono training and a CD–ROM of the pro bono resource book created by the FTC.
- MCVRC’s identity theft and fraud brochure and contact information.
Partners will usually come from other experts in the field such as the FTC, Attorney Generals’ Offices, U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, and other white-collar crime organizations. MCVRC focused on collaboration with the FTC, using and gaining familiarity with materials that the commission provided. MCVRC also contacted the State’s Attorney’s Office to get permission to include the office in training and created a reference database for attorneys who were willing to offer pro bono time for victims.
Conducting Pro Bono Trainings—MCVRC’s Experience
Advertise and hold trainings. (See sample pro bono flier [PDF 143 kb].) Give training credits in states where applicable.
In its pro bono trainings, MCVRC addresses the various types of identity theft, actions that victims can take, actions that attorneys and advocates can take in assisting victims, and how to prevent identity theft in the future. (See MCVRC pro bono presentation [PDF 8.1 mb].) The presentation also includes a basic outline on victims’ rights. MCVRC often collaborates with the FTC, which covers federal identity theft laws and how they work, including the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, in its portion of the presentation.
It’s often productive to have participants complete a short survey at the end of the training. The survey can be designed to elicit what participants found beneficial, what they learned, and how the training program could be improved for the future.
(See sample pro bono survey [PDF 336 kb].)
MCVRC also found a way to use technology to help pro bono attorneys and identity theft victims who lacked attorneys to assert their federal rights. Both MCVRC and VICARS reviewed and contributed to materials for pro bono attorneys that were developed by the FTC. Both OVC grantee organizations have worked with Pro Bono Net to make the materials available to pro bono attorneys throughout the United States as HotDocs, or automated practice documents, which pro bono attorneys will be able to modify to assist victims of identity theft regarding their rights under federal law.
Beyond making this material available to pro bono attorneys, a further goal in the field is to make available technology that allows victims of identity theft to self help though software-created interviews known as A2J Guided Interviews.® (For further information, see http://www.lawhelp.org/ and http://www.kentlaw.edu/cajt/A2JAuthor.html.) Allowing pro bono attorneys to use HotDocs and allowing victims to use A2J, will make it simpler and easier for identity theft victims to assert their rights under federal law.
Not all victim service providers offer legal services to victims, however, several of the grantees did so. VICARS, for example, used the services of licensed attorneys, including pro bono attorneys who donated their time and expertise to the project. Every victim who contacted VICARS spoke directly with an attorney or with staff supervised by an attorney. At a minimum every case was reviewed by an attorney and, depending on the client’s needs, legal intervention and representation was available. In 100 percent of the cases in which a perpetrator was identified and prosecuted, VICARS staff assisted the victim in preparing a victim impact statement and submitting it to the probation department or district attorney’s office.
For clients whose health, language barriers, or case complexity prevented them from advocating with creditors, businesses, or law enforcement, VICARS’ attorneys provided services ranging from telephone calls to letter writing and more. VICARS’ attorneys represented victims who had been sued by creditors or bill collectors over accounts that were opened by identity thieves. They also represented victims in criminal proceedings to enforce their rights (e.g., the right to make a victim impact statement and the right to restitution) and filed original lawsuits for victims who needed court orders to clear public records or who needed court orders declaring them to be victims of identity theft.
Some of the ways in which pro bono attorneys can aid victims included the following:
- Assisting victims in making reports to the police, financial institutions, credit card companies.
- Advising victims about emergency financial needs.
- Compiling and reviewing documentation.
- Providing clear instructions and sample forms for reporting fraud/identity theft.
- Assisting victims with obtaining and reviewing credit reports.
- Helping victims in filing disputes.
- Assisting victims in reporting fraud.
- Assisting with followup to credit reporting services, banks, and creditors.
- Negotiating with creditors and collection agencies.