Finance 411: What Credit Experts Wish Journalists Knew About Identity Theft

Education Resources, Finance 411,

Identity Theft

By Molly McCluskey

When Bruce McClary learned he was a victim of identity theft many years ago, he thought he had to deal with the fallout himself. It was only when attempting to contact creditors that he was asked if he had filed a report with the Federal Trade Commission, or his local police. It was then he learned procedures exist to help him combat the damage that was being done to his credit reports. 

"It's common that people think they have to fight it on their own, and you would just call the creditor," said McClary, now the senior vice president of membership and communications for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "The information is not obvious to a lot of people as to what the first step or second step is, and if you don't do it everyday for your job, you wouldn't necessarily know about the resources available." 

There is a process for reporting identity theft

Those resources include first reporting the theft to the FTC's Identity Theft website, which offers resources and a recovery plan, as well as filing a local police report. Many creditors will ask for this documentation before taking action on fraudulent accounts. Equally important is alerting the three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Transunion and Experian — and placing voluntary freezes on credit reports to prevent anyone opening a new account. Since October 2023, the website allows users to access a free credit report weekly. As with McClary's case, the first sign of a fraudulent account often can be spotted as an inquiry or default on a credit report. 

Taking these steps doesn't mean the perpetrator will be caught; rather it's about creating a documentation trail to help mitigate the damage. 

There is no one single type of identity theft

McClary was a victim of a type of financial crime that included the theft and misuse of personal identifying information for the purposes of opening and using fraudulent accounts. But identity theft for financial gain takes a variety of forms; from online relationship scams known as “pig butchering,” to elderly financial exploitation, to data breaches. 

"What I have found is a desire to oversimplify the problem and the process," said Eva Velasquez, the president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. "When I talk with a finance reporter or a tech reporter who understands the topic, they'll ask very specific questions, but when I get someone who doesn't understand it, they'll ask more general questions, like, ‘What is the worst thing about identity theft?’ It's a very complicated space, and it can't be boiled down."

How journalists talk about victims matters

Those assumptions often reveal themselves in the language journalists use when reporting on identity theft and other financial crime victims, language that can retraumatize crime victims at a vulnerable time in their recovery. Personal data has a long shelf life before it goes stale, and each time it's fraudulently used can have real implications on a person's life far beyond the financial. 

"The words we use matter. When we use words like ‘duped,’ ‘fell for,’ this feeds into the epidemic we have of shaming victims," Velazquez says. "When we say someone was duped, there is the connotation of ignorance, when the reality is that person was lied to and they believed that lie.

"Journalists regularly ask me, ‘Can you find me a victim?’ And I always say no. These are crime victims. They are traumatized. We are especially dismissive of victims of economic crimes because we think it's your money, it's just a bummer."

Recovering from an identity breach takes time

When identity has been compromised, there is no easy fix — particularly if what led to the theft isn't uncovered. 

"For most people, it will be six to 12 months before the dust completely settles and most people are back to a place where they're not having to be as concerned of the recurrence of any identity theft or credit fraud," McClary said. 

Additional Resources

FTC’s resources for victims of identity theft 

FTC consumer advice on identity theft

Molly McCluskey  is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, National Geographic and more. She has found more than $500 in unclaimed property since 2021. View her work and get in touch via Finance 411 is a bi-monthly feature, presented by RTDNA and the National Endowment for Financial Education.