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Pro Bono

Picking Up the Pieces

Paralegal skills can help identity theft victims get back on track.

By Lori Thompson

January/February 2009 Table of Contents

Web Exclusive


Identity theft can take a variety of forms and many consumers are victims long before they realize it. Identity thieves don’t just want the money in your wallet; they want your personal information. The identity thief might start by submitting a change of address form so that your mail is redirected to a new address. Then the identity thief opens new credit in your name, and the credit cards and monthly statements are mailed to the new address. The damage that can be done in a matter of months can take years to untangle. Those who are facing the long road to gaining back their name and good credit need someone who is organized, understands the law and can focus on what has to be done while setting emotional issues aside — what they need is a great paralegal.

 Opportunities to Educate and Help

For paralegals with experience or an interest in community education, there are opportunities with local nonprofit organizations, state consumer affairs divisions and national organizations such as the Identity Theft Resource Center. The goal is to inform consumers about how their identity can be stolen or compromised, and to empower them to better protect their personal information and not fall victim to scams.

For paralegals who want experience working one-on-one, there are programs that provide counseling services in addition to education and direct services to address the impact of identity theft. Victims need help working through the emotional impact, understanding the criminal ramifications and how identity theft cases proceed through the system, reading and understanding their credit reports, identifying where to get help, grasping the applicable laws, and completing the identity theft complaint forms required by a variety of agencies. Paralegals can focus on the details by methodically documenting the key aspects of the victim’s case.

Many states have Web sites dedicated to helping their citizens understand and recover from identity theft. The consumer resources are commonly referred to as a “Victim’s Tool Kit” and include sample letters to notify creditors and credit bureaus. A victim might be feeling overwhelmed about where to start, and the kit includes a detailed action plan or checklist that outlines where to file complaints and what agencies must be notified. A paralegal working with an identity theft victim can use the available resources to quickly help him or her get started. A few good examples of state tool kits are:

  • North Carolina Department of Justice (http://noscamnc.gov/toolkit.html)

  • Pennsylvania Attorney General (www.attorneygeneral.gov/idtheft.aspx?id=1757)

  • The Texas Legal Services Center’s Victims Initiative for Counseling, Advocacy and Restoration of the Southwest (www.idvictim.org/documents/381491ACTION%20PLAN%2005-08.pdf)

Many states also provide victims of identity theft with what is referred to as an Identity Theft Passport, which is available to those who have at least filed a police report concerning the details of their identity theft issues and filed an identity theft affidavit (available through the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site). The passport can be used when applying for new credit and to resolve credit disputes by presenting it to creditors to demonstrate victimization. It also can be presented to law enforcement officials or other individuals who might challenge the victim about his or her identity.  It essentially is designed to protect victims from unlawful detention or arrest for crimes committed by the identity thief. 

Most state and federal Web sites provide tips to help prevent people from becoming victims, and to help victims better understand how their identities were compromised, and include information on:

  • guarding Social Security numbers;

  • carrying a minimum amount of personal information;

  • keeping mail secured;

  • monitoring bank statements, credit card statements and utility bills;

  • checking credit reports on a regular basis;

  • shredding all personal information before discarding;

  • choosing secure passwords and PINs; and

  • avoiding phishing and other e-mail scams.

Identity Theft Programs

The Identity Theft Resource Center, the Texas Legal Services Center, Atlanta Victim Assistance, Inc., and the Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center all received grants in 2008 that will cover a 2-year period from the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Program because they are organizations that provide assistance to victims of identity theft and financial fraud.

The ITRC provides assistance, without cost, to victims of identity theft through counseling and case work. Volunteers, including paralegals, present information to local community groups, translate victim guides, work with legislatures to draft identity theft legislation and conduct media interviews. For more information, visit www.idtheftcenter.org.

TLSC (www.idvictim.org/index.cfm) was provided funds for its Victims Initiative for Counseling, Advocacy and Restoration of the Southwest project, which provides legal assistance directly to victims of identity theft and financial fraud living in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado. Victims are provided with step-by-step coaching on how to reclaim their identity and credit. All volunteers, including paralegals, walk the victim through the process, answer questions and help complete forms. TLSC works with Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma (www.legalaidok.org), Colorado Legal Services (http://coloradolegalservices.org) and New Mexico Legal Aid (www.nmlegalaid.org).

The Atlanta Victim Assistance, Inc., focuses its resources on public education to bring an end to identity theft and financial fraud in Atlanta, and volunteers, including paralegals, help accomplish this goal. The Stop Atlanta Fraud Empower Campaign delivers services with the goal of providing education, advocacy and training to help reduce identity theft and fraud by increasing consumer awareness of what to look for and offering consumers tips on what to do if they become victims of these crimes. The organization offers a helpline that tracks identity theft cases and provides specific resources to victims through a centralized location. Paralegal volunteers can serve as consumer advocates, working with victims to assist them with filling out documentation, such as complaints, and filing them with the Federal Trade Commission and the Atlanta Police Department. Consumer advocates help victims through the process by contacting credit bureaus to correct their credit reports, referring these victims to agencies that provide additional services, and helping with community outreach and training to local groups and law enforcement, which aim to better their understanding of the issues that impact victims and assist them in being better prepared to conduct identity theft cases. For more information, visit http://www.atlantava.org/services.asp.

The Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center provides direct services regarding identity theft that include self-advocacy and pro bono assistance. Volunteers attend court hearings with victims, assist them through the criminal justice process, and serve as their resource, as well as help organize and set up events, manage office work and participate in community events. For more information, visit www.mdcrimevictims.org.

Many state attorney general offices provide resources or assistance to victims of identity theft. For example, the Illinois attorney general offers an identity theft hotline that “provides Illinoisans who have been victimized by identity theft with one-on-one assistance to take the steps necessary to report the crime to local law enforcement and financial institutions, repair their credit, and prevent future problems” (http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/consumers/hotline.html).

Other states might have a state entity that is dedicated to privacy issues that also assists victims of identity theft. For example, the California Office of Information Security and Privacy Protection, “assists individuals with identity theft and other privacy-related concerns, provides consumer education and information on privacy issues, coordinates with local, state and federal law enforcement on identity theft investigations, and recommends policies and practices that protect individual privacy rights” (www.oispp.ca.gov/consumer_privacy/default.asp).

The Time is Now

Pro bono identity theft programs are on the rise, and should continue to increase with the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates’ approval of recommendation 102B in February. The recommendation encourages the creation of new pro bono and legal programs to assist identity theft victims who are in need of legal assistance to address and recover from the crime. In addition, nonprofit organizations that focus on a specific area of law, such as tax law, are expanding their services to help identity theft victims. With these evolving pro bono services, there are more ways than ever for paralegals from many specialties to help consumers who have fallen victim to identity theft.


Identity Theft Resources

  • Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act: www.ftc.gov/os/statutes/itada/itadact.htm (directed by the Federal Trade Commission to establish the federal government’s central repository for identity theft complaints and to provide victim assistance and consumer education).

  • Fair Credit Reporting Act: www.ftc.gov/os/statutes/fcradoc.pdf

  • Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003: http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=108_cong_public_laws&docid=f:publ159.108 (amended FCRA includes new provisions that impact the credit reporting system and the prevention of identity theft).

  • President’s Task Force on Identity Theft: www.idtheft.gov

  • State-Specific Identity Theft Resources: www.privacyrights.org/fs/fs17a-IdTheft-US.htm

  • Tools for Victims: www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/tools.html

  • Identity Theft Statutes & Criminal Penalties: www.ncsl.org/programs/lis/privacy/idt-statutes.htm



Please see the following related news brief: “Thurston County Task Force Takes Off” by Heidi Lowry, November/December 2007.



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