|Pro Bono Feature|
Identity Theft: A Low–Income Issue
Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America, claiming more than 12 million victims in 2012, according to a recent report.1 Defined by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as use of an individual's personal information without permission,2 identity theft is broader and more pervasive than many assume, and encompasses much more than access to credit. In 2012, identity theft ranked first among all categories of consumer complaints to the FTC, and nearly half of those complaints involved government benefits or documents fraud, including tax and wage–related fraud.3 Other prevalent categories of identity theft include utility, phone, bank, and employment fraud.4 Additionally, between 2006 and 2008, over 600,000 victims experienced other types of identity theft, including criminal and medical identity theft.5
The impact of identity theft can be extensive and utterly overwhelming. In addition to significant financial loss, victims must cope with wrongful arrests, loss of utility service, erroneous information on health records, improper child support garnishments, and harassment by collection agencies.6 These issues are further compounded by the fact that recovery can take months or longer. Moreover, many Americans affected by identity theft lack the means to pay for legal counsel or representation. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2010 43% of households experiencing identity theft had annual incomes below $75,000.7
Responding to a Growing Need
Over the past several years, South Brooklyn Legal Services (SBLS) and similar programs have seen an increase in identity theft matters arising in many practice areas, including consumer, tax, employment, matrimonial, and government benefits law. These cases are often handled by discrete programs, practice units, or individual attorneys, and as a result, some identity theft issues may be overlooked. In 2011, SBLS formed the New York City Identity Theft Coalition to bring together a diverse group of advocates addressing identity theft issues affecting low–income New Yorkers. The coalition is one of ten nationwide coalitions that make up the National Identity Theft Victim Assistance Network (NITVAN). NITVAN was created through funding from the Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) to educate and provide outreach to advocates serving victims of identity theft. SBLS is part of Legal Services NYC (LSNYC), the largest provider of civil legal services in the country.
Identity theft can be especially devastating for low–income people because it jeopardizes basic income sources and vitally necessary services. At all income levels, financial harm is typical: in 2008, 62% of identity theft victims reported a direct or indirect financial loss associated with the theft.8 However, for low–income individuals and families, the financial injury, emotional stress, and other effects experienced by identity theft victims across the income spectrum are often compounded by severe and immediate consequences to crucial needs–based benefits, subsidized housing, employment, utility service, and medical care. To cite one example, SBLS often sees clients whose need–based SSI benefits are threatened due to fraudulent earnings appearing on their records. The process of proving that a disabled recipient did not earn the wages that appear in Social Security's records can be lengthy and challenging, often requiring an administrative hearing in addition to filing identity theft reports and affidavits with other agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, FTC, and local police. Barriers such as limited English proficiency and limited phone and computer access increase the need for advocacy assistance in addressing identity theft affecting low–income clients.
Identity Theft in Abusive Relationships
Greater awareness of typical identity fraud scenarios can improve the ability of legal services providers and pro bono attorneys to spot and respond to issues that may fall beyond the immediate matter presented by the client. The particular consumer law or benefits issue a client seeks help with may in fact be one aspect of a broader identity theft problem. Furthermore, in some cases, identity theft may stem from an abusive relationship in which the abuser disturbs the victim's ability to gain economic security and self–sufficiency. Ninety–nine percent of domestic violence survivors report that they were subjected to economic abuse at some point during their relationship.9 Identity theft and other forms of financial exploitation are common within families and between intimate partners because close relationships often provide easy access to confidential information through credit card bills, Social Security mailings, medical documents and more. Abusers may use such information to obtain credit, employment, and benefits in survivors' and/or their children's names.10 Repairing the damage caused by economic abuse is key to providing comprehensive representation to survivors of domestic violence.
In many cases, survivors only discover identity theft after leaving the relationship. For example, SBLS assisted a domestic violence survivor who found that her abuser had defaulted on credit card accounts he had opened using the names and Social Security numbers of their minor children. We learned of these issues in the context of our simultaneous representation of this client in divorce, custody and income tax matters. We also worked with a domestic violence survivor who, while fighting cancer, found herself saddled with overwhelming tax and consumer debts accumulated years before by her estranged husband. He had used her name and previously good credit to open a restaurant, amassing debts that resulted in a restraint on her bank account. SBLS was able to refer the tax collection matter to pro bono counsel, who resolved the debts with the IRS, and provided referral and pro se advice on the related consumer matters. Another common scenario involves an abuser writing off business expenses by filing false employment documents using the identity of a partner, spouse or child. One client's daughter learned that she was a victim of identity theft perpetrated by her stepfather when her Medicaid application was denied due to fraudulent wage information reported to Social Security. Her mother is currently waiting for sorely needed tax refunds, intercepted after the IRS recalculated her tax liabilities to account for fraudulent earnings information filed by her spouse in her name. In another case, a disabled domestic violence survivor sought help when she was denied subsidized housing due to federal debts accrued by her former husband. To qualify for affordable housing, she needed assistance to seek not only relief from joint responsibility for his tax debts, but also discharge of defaulted student loans taken out by her husband in her name so that he could benefit from online courses. We provide these domestic violence scenarios to help illustrate the contexts in which advocates for low–income clients may encounter identity theft issues, as well as the multi–disciplinary approaches that may be needed to resolve them.
Resources for Advocates and Clients
Unfortunately, there is no 100% effective way to prevent identity theft. It is critical for anyone who becomes a victim of identity theft to act quickly. Clients should be advised to place a credit freeze on any accounts involved, contact the companies or organizations where the theft occurred, and file a complaint with the FTC and law enforcement. Consumers may contact the FTC to file a complaint online or call 877–438–4338 (TTY: 866–653–4261). For clients who need assistance in reporting and coping with identity theft issues, the FTC has created a guide to assist pro bono attorneys. NITVAN, along with partners at Kansas Legal Services and Pro Bono Net, have created online Access to Justice (A2J) materials for cases involving financial identity theft. These materials, including step–by–step instructions and self–help forms, are available for a growing number of jurisdictions, including 28 states, Micronesia, and the areas and Native American nations served by www.nativelegalnet.org.
A well–informed advocacy community can make a significant difference toward reducing the impact of identity theft on vulnerable low–income populations. For links to materials and further information, visit http://identitytheftnetwork.org/gethelp. For more information on identity theft or the content of this article, please contact NITVAN or call 1–877–VICTIM–1.
Sarah Dranoff directs South Brooklyn Legal Services' Workers' Rights and Benefits Unit, which combines several practice areas related to economic justice, including employment law, low–income tax advocacy, pension benefits counseling, unemployment benefits, child care, and education.
Additional contributions to this article were made from the National Identity Theft Victims' Assistance Network's Catherine Caldwell, Esq., Merry O'Brien, MSW, and Russell Butler, Esq.
Disclaimer: This article was produced, in part, under award # 2010–VF–GX–K030, awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this document are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
5 Langton, L. & Planty, M. (2010). Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, National Crime Victim Victimization Survey Supplement, Victims of Identity Theft 2008. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. available at http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=42.
6 Synovate (2007). Federal Trade Commission—2006 Identity Theft Survey Report. McLean, VA. available at http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2007/11/idtheft.shtm.
9 Adams, Sullivan, Bybee, Greeson, Development of the Scale of Economic Abuse, 14(5) Violence Against Women Journal 563 (2008).