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How the government shutdown hurts fraud victims

NBC News logo NBC News 3 days ago Jon Schuppe
a sign in front of a brick building: Image: Federal Trade Commission building © Alex Brandon Image: Federal Trade Commission building

A couple of days after Christmas, Louette Duvall was chatting with a customer outside her Sacramento, California, eyeglass shop when a security guard asked if she knew that someone was going through her car parked nearby.

The men were thieves, and by the time she realized what was happening, they'd taken off with her handbag and briefcase and everything inside: credit cards, checkbooks, business and Social Security documents, her address book and her mail, she said.

For the next few days, Duvall, 67, a widow, scrambled to freeze or close her bank accounts and alert her credit card companies as fraudulent charges appeared. Then she began thinking about how the criminals could use information about her to do further damage, like create bogus credit cards and checkbooks to buy things in her name, or file a false tax return to reap a bogus refund.

So she dialed the Federal Trade Commission, where she hoped to file a complaint and seek help on how to contain her losses.

No one picked up.

She visited the FTC's identity theft website, identitytheft.gov, and found this message:

"Due to the government shutdown, we are unable to offer this website service at this time."

Duvall fumed.

"It was like I can't stop it and my government is not there to help," she recalled.

"I have good credit," Duvall added. "I'm vulnerable."

Many identity theft victims are feeling the same way, as the government shutdown enters its fourth week and the FTC is among the many federal agencies to go dormant.

Some identity theft victims took to social media to complain about the lack of help available from the FTC. A Washington Post columnist wrote about her experience. It is impossible to know how many calls of identity theft have gone unanswered during the shutdown, but FTC data suggests that it typically receives thousands of complaints of identity theft per week.

An FTC spokesperson could not be reached for comment Friday; the FTC's public affairs office was closed.

Identity theft services are one piece of the FTC's suspended operations. Its Do Not Call Registry is offline, as is the Consumer Sentinel Network, which helps law enforcement agents track identity fraud and other consumer complaints.

"You can't put information in, you can't get anything out, and so the bottom line is the FTC is not currently able to help consumers or law enforcement agencies with identity theft issues," said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America, an association of nonprofit consumer groups.

While the FTC doesn't intervene on a victim's behalf directly, it offers step-by-step advice on how to handle their particular circumstance, and it allows them to file a complaint, which generates an affidavit they can use to alert credit agencies and financial institutions.

That's crucial in cases of identity theft, in which the quicker a victim responds, the easier it is to repair the damage, experts say.

"Most people really don't know what to do and how to clear up the problem and minimize the risk of further problems. So they need advice from somebody. The FTC is a great resource for that," Grant said. (The FTC's website still contains general information and advice about identity fraud.)

In response to the FTC's shutdown, other organizations have stepped up. One is the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. Experts have pointed out that victims can also seek help from state and local consumer-protection agencies.

Duvall thinks highly of the FTC because it responded quickly to a fraud complaint she made a few years ago.

"They watch out for you. They protect you. That's why I reached out to them," she said. "And now I can't tell them anything."

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