Privacy Advisor

Downstream of the Data Breach: Identity Theft Is A Messy Crime

After years assisting victims in the AG’s office, a Maine woman has opened the state’s first identity theft resource center

November 26, 2013

By Angelique Carson, CIPP/US

Identity theft is a unique kind of crime. It’s maybe the only crime in which the victim often doesn’t know how it happened, when it happened or who did it to them.

“It’s frightening; it’s spooky, and it leaves them looking over their shoulder for a long period of time,” said Jane Carpenter. “It’s a really weird crime, and it leaves a really lasting effect on people. Who got my data, and how did they get it?”

Carpenter is quite familiar with the aftermath of identity theft, having worked in the Maine Attorney General’s office in the consumer protection division for seven years. The first point-of-contact for victims of identity theft, she developed an expertise in the area and a passion for helping them out. All that training led her to, in August, open Maine Identity Services, a company that aims to help ID theft victims get their lives back and is the first business of its kind in the state.

The company has three goals. First and foremost, it aims to help victims of ID theft. Second, it provides training to Maine’s police departments on how to handle cases of ID theft, and finally, it provides public education for anyone who wants it. It’s a one-stop-shop for resources on ID theft. If privacy pros and regulators are on the frontlines of the data breach wars, Carpenter and her crew at Maine Identity Services are the medics tending to the wounded.

It’s only in recent times that the relationship between data breaches and identity theft is being recognized, Carpenter said. Years ago, if a laptop was stolen from a car, the commodity seen as valuable was the computer and not the data. Now, there’s been a sea change.

“It’s not the computer that has the value; it’s the information,” she said. “And that’s because the whole nature of data breaches and what’s driving them—databases and sources of information—have acquired this significant value. Because of that, the link to identity theft has changed.”

Carpenter and her two full-time associates travel to professional associations and schools to promote their message. They especially try and talk to senior citizens, who are often the target of scams and also lack knowledge on ID theft in general.

“The information exists out in the world, but in a form that isn’t particularly user-friendly for people,” Carpenter said. “Someone who’s a victim can go look up what the individual laws are at the federal or state level, or go to the FTC website or other state organizations. But what they are going to come away with is either too much information or bits and pieces. So what we’re trying to do is make the whole process easier for people. That’s our goal.”

There’s certainly plenty of demand for the information. The 2011 Maine Crime Victimization Report found identity theft to be the most frequently committed crime in Maine. Those numbers are based on the identity thefts that are reported to police. Many go underreported.

Carpenter said there’s been a significant amount of interest in the one-stop-shop resources she provides. While federal law describes the responsibilities for creditors in cases of identity theft, state laws create variations in the difficulty of a victim’s road to recovery, as does the type of identity theft that’s occurred. Medical identity theft may result in false health records that can take years to clean up; tax fraud—an increasingly common crime—requires often-lengthy investigations by the IRS to resolve. And criminal identity theft, in which someone else’s personal information is used during an arrest and sentencing, can result in a person having a criminal record they didn’t know about and subsequently affect the ability to get a job, among other consequences.

The repercussions tend to be long-lasting. If a person uses someone else’s personal information and is arrested for operating under the influence, for example, it may be impossible for a victim to obtain a driver’s license. Or, a skewed credit report may result in a victim receiving higher insurance rates or having trouble obtaining a loan. Often, a victim doesn’t even know about the crime until months or even years after it occurs.

“People are going to be victims,” Carpenter said. “What we try to do is offer a low-cost way for people to get out from the hassle of being a victim, as opposed to telling people ‘If you pay us every month, we’ll prevent it from happening.’”

Looking to the future, Carpenter said governments can help victims by passing state laws that work in sync with federal laws: “If the laws don’t work well together—and you hear horror stories—it will take you thousands of hours and thousands of dollars with identity theft.”

As with any crime, though, it would be ideal if identity theft never happened in the first place. And that’s where privacy professionals come in, Carpenter said, ensuring data is used and stored properly from start to finish to help prevent the crime from even occurring. Which, of course, would put her out of business.

For now, though, it’s occurring, and it’s occurring a lot.

“For too long there has been a feeling that there’s so much ID theft and misuse of credit cards that it just gets shrugged off; it gets viewed as a nonevent by people who might otherwise respond to it,” she said. “But you don’t know when you will be victimized.”

Read More by Angelique Carson:
Safe Harbor’s In Trouble—Unless You Ask the U.S.
What Would You Do?
Breach Roundup
Fordham Law Develops Privacy Curriculum for Middle Schoolers