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Ten Questions With… Eva Velasquez (Part One)

Today is Data Privacy Day, so I thought it would be appropriate to help observe the occasion by talking with another warrior on the front lines of the fight against identity crime, Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center.

The Identity Theft Resource Center was founded in 1999 as a nonprofit organization with a threefold mission: to raise awareness of the fast-growing categories of identity crime, to educate consumers about how to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft, and to be a free resource to help victims of identity theft clear their names, their financial and medical records, and get their lives back in order.

Since that time, the Identity Theft Resource Center has helped tens of thousands of people who have found themselves victims of identity theft, medical identity theft, credit card fraud, social engineering scams and other related crimes.

HoGo: Not all identity theft is the same. What types of identity theft are there that consumers need to be aware of?

Eva Velasquez: Financial identity theft is by far the most common form of identity theft. This can encompass anything from the single use of an existing credit card, to opening new lines of credit, obtaining utilities (such as cable or electricity) or even mobile phones. Beyond financial identity theft, the other types are medical, government, criminal, and child identity theft. These other types are often so confusing that they go unreported because victims don’t even know how to define what has occurred. If someone discovers their name and information has been used to obtain medical services from a hospital in another state, they realize that it’s fraudulent in some manner, but they often don’t realize it is a form of identity theft.

HoGo: Recent data breaches at retailers Target and Neiman Marcus have gotten a great deal of media attention. What should people take away from these events that they can use to better protect themselves from identity theft?

Eva Velasquez: Data breaches leave consumers feeling powerless and confused, as they don’t know what they could have done differently. In the case of these breaches, there isn’t anything that consumers could have done as it is the responsibility of retailers to be good stewards of our information and employ the best possible measures they can to prevent intrusion and compromise.

What people can do is realize that their behavior before a breach plays a significant role in the severity of the consequences of breaches. If you already follow best practices, you will not have to alter your behavior dramatically post breach. Consumers who monitor their financial/credit card statements and bank accounts regularly, pay attention and watch out for phishing emails and have strong passwords that they change frequently are ahead of the game when they are notified of a breach.

HoGo: What aspects of these stories do you feel are getting overplayed, and what aspects do you feel are deserving of more attention?

Eva Velasquez: The uniqueness of these data breaches has definitely been overplayed. ITRC documented 619 breaches in 2013 alone. Data breaches are ubiquitous in our world today. The fact that Target is an iconic brand and that this happened during the holiday season does add a twist, but this is a familiar story. What we need to pay more attention to are the needs of the different consumers that have been affected. Victims of the Neiman Marcus breach are more likely to have the resources, both financial and otherwise, to ensure they have their questions answered, feel that their voice is heard by the breached entity and suffer few longer term effects.

Target on the other hand has a different customer base. Many of the victims the ITRC helps through the call center are low to moderate income. Customers of Target are more likely to fall into this category and may not have the disposable income to pay for identity theft products or services, hire an attorney, or even understand how to ensure their needs are addressed in these cases. A free year of credit monitoring can be a useful tool, but what about after that initial year? What are we doing for the individuals who do not have the disposable income to continue with the services once they have to pay out of pocket for them? How have they been empowered, trained, or educated after the breach? They haven’t, and they are often more vulnerable and left with no resources.

If society and industry do not consider this segment of our population when discussing the remedies, and they are left unrepresented when we walk away from the table with a game plan, we risk further disenfranchising a large segment of Americans, and that simply isn’t good for our society.

HoGo: What are the most common issues your counselors face when helping people to recover from identity theft?

Eva Velasquez: Resolving an identity theft issue is a complex process and often difficult to understand even when you have a reasonable degree of experience or understanding of the financial process. Some consumers simply do not understand the basics when it comes to fiscal responsibility and the mechanisms that are at work behind the scenes. They frequently do not understand what the Credit Reporting Agencies (CRA) and Credit Bureaus are and how the system works.

We often have to begin with some basic education of what the different organizations are, what role they play, and how they affect the consumer. Then we can begin assisting with remediating the case. These calls are often very lengthy and they require a high level of expertise. We handle all types of identity theft and must be well-versed in how to remediate a wide variety of issues.

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