Nothing to See Here … Move Along. The Seventh Public Commission Meeting on Identity Theft

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Yesterday’s sole topic for the monthly public Federal Trade Commission (FTC) meeting was identity theft. That’s it. No policy statements, no votes, no repeal of carefully crafted bipartisan policy documents, just identity theft, statistics about identity theft and the FTC’s resources about identity theft. It is unclear why we needed a meeting to discuss this since the FTC has had an excellent website dedicated to identity theft for many years and has been providing education and guidance about the issue for decades. These are great resources, and it is helpful to remind the public about them. It is difficult, however, to see the fierce sense of urgency for this meeting.

The seventh (and briefest) meeting kicked off with the public comment session and the closely monitored two-minute limit per commenter. A record low of three speakers showed up, starting with two franchisee owners, one of a gas station and one in the hospitality industry. (We did not have to wait long for the “who will be the first to be on mute” game to end, as the first speaker had the honor.) Both franchisee owners asked the FTC to look into actions of franchisors that made it difficult for the franchisees to succeed. Then we heard from someone who raised concerns about accessing WHOIS domain name registration information and the need for protection of children engaged in online financial activities.

The crux of the meeting was a discussion of identity theft. Chair Khan noted that identity theft is on the rise and has been throughout the pandemic. Indeed, federal data reports $15 billion in actual dollars stolen. Chair Khan noted that the FTC dedicated considerable enforcement resources to the issue, bringing more than 80 cases since 2002 to protect consumer personal data. She reminded the audience that the Commission voted to initiate a rulemaking about imposter fraud at the December Open Meeting and invited comments. She also touted identity theft awareness week, which starts on Jan. 31.

An FTC staffer then gave a presentation in which she noted that in the past year, 25 percent of reported identity theft involved credit card fraud, 17 percent government benefits and 6 percent utility fraud. She explained that while older Americans are often targets, this type of fraud is a problem affecting consumers in every age group. She explained that IdentityTheft.gov is an interactive website to help consumers report identity theft and obtain resources to make a personalized plan to recover from identity theft. It is available in English and Spanish. Also, as a result of a joint agency partnership, it is the only online mechanism where consumers can report tax fraud to the IRS.

Commissioner Phillips commended staff for the user-friendly website. (We admit to being distracted while he spoke; his background was full of gorgeous child’s artwork that we are sure would fetch a tidy sum if converted to digital and sold on the NFT market.) Commissioner Slaughter talked about counseling a friend who had fallen victim to identity fraud. She did so to explain that identity theft can happen to everyone and is not something to be embarrassed about. (As an aside, one of us almost fell prey this morning to a call that our electricity bill was late and our power would be turned off, and got requests last week to “help a friend” buy online gift cards. It really is everywhere.) Commissioner Wilson noted the decadeslong effort by the FTC and staff to combat identity theft, thanking the staff all by name. She noted this was a priority for former Chairs Pitofsky, Muris and Majoras. Commissioner Wilson also noted the request for comments on the merger guidelines that the agency jointly issued with the Department of Justice last week,

The meeting at this point quite abruptly ended. We almost didn’t have time to finish the popcorn!

So what are our final thoughts about yesterday’s meeting? Well, we are reminded of those TV shows that would occasionally piece together a special clips episode when there was no new programming. Nothing really new to see; just rehashing some old content. Perhaps this will be the norm until a fifth commissioner is confirmed. And for those keeping track of that, after the new year, the White House renominated Alvaro Bedoya, and he is back in committee waiting for his vote. In the meantime, do check out the FTC’s identity theft page if you or someone you know needs information or assistance. It is a great resource if you are trying to prevent or recover from any form of identity theft.

Until next month.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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