Despite the significant toll identity fraud takes on victims, many federal and state benefits agencies struggle to support individuals as they resolve the financial and tax consequences that follow. We commissioned a report that proposes a whole-of-government, one-stop shop approach to resolving cases of identity fraud, centered around the needs of victims.
During this roundtable, our panel of experts discussed the increase in identity fraud during the pandemic, the victim experience, and recommendations to improve the identity fraud redress process.
Here are some key takeaways from the discussion:
The pandemic exacerbated issues related to digital identity verification and federal program integrity
Prior to the pandemic, many agencies began moving toward digital systems to apply for – and access – government benefits. As the urgency for federal benefits, such as unemployment insurance, increased due to the pandemic, so did the speed in which agencies transitioned to digital-only systems, exacerbating problems many individuals already faced as they learned to navigate the world through phones, tablets, and computers. This transition made it easier for federal programs and vulnerable users to be taken advantage of, which Julia Simon-Mishel, Supervising Attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, suggested could be mitigated by welcoming the support of service organizations. “We need to really look at how to use social services and legal services, who are already working with populations that are most harmed here, to help get people across the finish line, both to access benefits but also to address harms from identity theft,” she said.
Rev. Ben Roberts, Associate Pastor and Executive Director of Program and Justice Ministries at Foundry United Methodist Church, witnessed the negative impact digital-only government services had on members of his community, particularly thosedue to experiencing generational barriers to using technology or physical impairments. Without access to in-person services, individuals could can no longer speak to representatives of certain agencies to appeal denied claims due to discrepancies in their identification documents. Roberts put it plainly, “Anytime that we have that barrier where your only option is online to try and take care of business, we’re definitely going to cut people out who do have a legitimate claim to try and move forward.”
Identity fraud is a crime that results in emotional trauma
Identity theft and fraud victimization lead to a variety of consequences, which Eva Velasquez, President/CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, describes as a “domino effect” that impacts every aspect of victims’ lives, including their physical wellbeing. “I think that’s a piece that’s hard for people to connect the dots,” Velasquez said. “We think of fraud as being this nonviolent crime, so we don’t think that it can have these types of serious consequences and impacts for individuals.” From struggling to pay their bills to becoming ineligible for security clearances, individuals navigating the emotional toll and lost opportunity costs resulting from identity fraud may also experience stress, insomnia, headaches, and suicidal thoughts.
For some, discovering their identity has been stolen to commit fraud is almost as difficult as navigating the fallout. Simon-Mishel noted that many individuals, especially those who are low-income and did not file a tax return, are unaware that their identity has been stolen until they try to access much-needed government benefits or are required to pay taxes on benefits collected in their name. When attempting to resolve cases of identity fraud, low-income victims experience “a black hole of information” that exacerbates existing emotional trauma, she said.
Velasquez emphasized that identity fraud victims are not a homogenous group, meaning there is no one-size-fits-all approach to redress and helping them overcome trauma. “We either need to get victim advocates involved in this process at some point – after the fraud report has been taken or the investigation has been conducted – or we need to get more training to these ‘first responders’ who are the first touch that these victims have, so they are getting care that is trauma-informed and culturally competent,” she said.
Equity-focused solutions to improving victim redress and identity verification systems are necessary for reducing barriers to access
Many agencies require identity fraud victims to file police reports, which creates challenges for all parties involved. As Simon-Mishel stated, the ways victims are required to navigate redress has a disparate impact on low-income and minority individuals. “The vast majority of my clients don’t want to go to their local police station. Even if they do, as police, that is not their main area of work. They have a lot of other things on their plate, and they aren’t looking to file police reports on identity theft,” she said.
Roberts highlighted the importance of considering the experiences of vulnerable populations when writing policies and protocols. Each year, his identity ministry assists thousands of individuals with recovering identity documents, many of whom experience barriers to identity verification due to circumstances ranging from strained family dynamics to the absence of a birth certificate because they were born in the segregated South. “My reminder is that we always are trying to consider these situations up front,” Roberts said. “Some of them are quite common, but they are not making it into consideration.”
Following Roberts’ comments, Jeremy Grant, Coordinator of The Better Identity Coalition, stated that many of today’s digital identity verification systems leverage private sector vendors who attempt to “guess what only the government knows” through processes that can be exclusionary. “There’s a lot we need to do to look at what the shortcomings are and come up with solutions that can work better, more accurately, more securely, and work for everybody,” he said, of systems that often assume all users have a credit history or identity documents, such as a driver's license.
Michele Evermore, Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation, shared the Department of Labor’s efforts to make in-person identity verification available through the U.S. Postal Service. “I think it’s a really good, equitable solution since, by definition, there’s a post office in every zip code,” she said, of the service that can also help individuals overcome hurdles related to unemployment insurance.
Identity fraud prevention requires information sharing among agencies and an understanding that the issue transcends federal programs
Evermore discussed the need for unemployment insurance agencies to share information of compromised identities with other systems to prevent fraudsters from further victimizing individuals. As the redress process currently stands, victims are often unaware of additional actions they should take to secure their identity after reporting a false claim to an unemployment insurance agency. “It would be great if, once somebody is compromised in one system, that person gets assistance in locking down everything that they need to lock down,” she said.
“This isn’t just a government benefits problem – it’s a national problem,” Grant said. Although identity fraud became top-of-mind during the pandemic, Grant believes it should not be viewed as an issue that only affects the public sector. Rather, its impact should be viewed across sectors, considering fraudsters’ ability to use previously stolen identities to further impact victims, such as opening a credit card in their name or hijacking their bank account. As agencies determine ways to improve digital identity verification, it’s important that they not only consider robust solutions that keep pace with innovative techniques used by fraudsters, but that they also ensure the solutions are equitable, accessible, and privacy-preserving.
This activity does not constitute or imply an endorsement of participating organizations or any of their products or services by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, or the United States government.
- Eva Velasquez: President/CEO, Identity Theft Resource Center
- Rev. Ben Roberts: Associate Pastor and Executive Director of Program and Justice Ministries, Foundry United Methodist Church
- Julia Simon-Mishel: Supervising Attorney of the Unemployment Compensation Unit, Philadelphia Legal Assistance
- Michele Evermore: Senior Fellow, The Century Foundation
- Jeremy Grant: Coordinator, The Better Identity Coalition