The Victim Experience
Victims of identity theft are often victims of multiple crimes and may be unable to clearly define what has happened to them or how it happened. They may be confused or even paralyzed by the experience.
Victims can suffer far more than the loss of their money or ruin of their credit. Loss of employment and inability to obtain housing are just a few examples of how identity theft can threaten a victim’s basic needs, not to mention the outstanding criminal warrants that can be issued against a victim. Knowledgeable victim assistance is absolutely necessary to help the victim to mitigate his or her case. In recent years, many new laws protecting personal information, blocking negative credit that results from victimization, and strengthening criminal penalties have been passed, but more work remains to be done. Until that time, victims will need assistance from victim advocates to help them to navigate the remediation process. More about Federal Identity Theft Laws.
Businesses, Not Individuals Are Considered the Primary Victim
Even worse, identity theft victims are sometimes not recognized by law enforcement and others as victims of a crime. Instead, the service or business that was defrauded using the victim’s identity is considered to be the primary victim, and the person whose identity was stolen often has to prove his or her innocence. If the first efforts at resolving a victim’s case fail, there are few clear-cut secondary remedies or recourse for the victim to take. The ultimate decision to clear the responsibility for monetary fraud from the victim is left up to the creditor.
Necessity of Obtaining Police Reports
When the victim cannot obtain a police report or a letter of clearance from a business, it is extremely difficult to pursue an identity theft case. The Identity Theft Resource Center’s publication, Identity Theft: The Aftermath 2008, reported that almost 20 percent of the respondents had already spent nearly 2 years involved with their case (ITRC, 2009).
In the past, several factors have made it difficult for victims to obtain police reports. Identity theft is often imbedded within other crimes and is not recorded separately. Furthermore, there may be cross-jurisdictional confusion about who is responsible for recording a crime that originated in one place but may have spread over multiple jurisdictions. There is also a misperception among some law enforcement officials that identity theft is not a crime but a matter for enforcement through the civil justice system.
Many victims are unable to resolve their cases because they are unprepared or uninformed on how best to communicate with law enforcement or governmental agencies. In addition, some law enforcement or governmental officials do not have the necessary training, resources, or materials to assist victims of identity theft. These two complicating factors are still far too common and can stop cold victims’ efforts to restore their reputations and credit.
Recently, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other groups have taken steps to introduce reporting and recording rules that will help victims to get police reports (Newman and McNally, 2005).
A Role for Victim Service Providers
Until a network of law enforcement agencies, government agencies, and businesses come together to establish the processes necessary to consistently mitigate more complex cases, it will be necessary for well-trained victim advocates to be available for the victims. These advocates must be knowledgeable in all areas of identity theft and have significant resources made available to them in order to correctly defuse these complex cases. They must have access to extensive knowledge about and experience with resolving a wide array of identity theft issues, coupled with the desire to follow up with victims over extended periods of time. Continuous education and training are a requirement for advocates to remain effective with each new development. As the crime changes, so too must the advocate. Finally, even as society makes attempts to reduce the prevalence of this crime, keeping the focus on the victims of identity theft and financial fraud and improving resources for them should not be overlooked.