From the Partnership for Public Service
Friday, February 13, 2009 6:00 PM
Carolyn Shanoff is a government employee working to make sure you don't end up like Oprah Winfrey or Steven Spielberg -- and that's a good thing.
These A-list moguls are among the roughly 10 million Americans who are victims of identity theft each year. This crime carries the stiff psychological price that comes with an invasion of one's privacy, and for victims who do not have the financial means of a celebrity, ID theft can turn their lives upside down.
"It seems that nearly everyone knows somebody who has experienced some form of identity theft," said Shanoff, an associate director at the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "It's a crime that robs people of their good name, steals billions of dollars from the nation's businesses, and puts a strain on law enforcement resources."
Shanoff and her team at the FTC are combating this problem with the most powerful weapon at their disposal -- education.
Under her leadership, the agency has armed thousands of local law enforcement officials with tools to help identity theft victims, equipped tens of thousands of local organizations with materials to educate their members about avoiding identity theft, and distributed millions of publications directly to consumers.
"As a small group with a big mission, we always try to use a creative and cost-effective approach to education and outreach," Shanoff said. "We work on a "wholesale-retail" model that involves developing strategic partnerships with a slew of organizations and providing them with practical, no-cost information they can disseminate on our behalf."
The centerpiece of the campaign is the Identity Theft Education Kit, which enables anyone -- regardless of their previous knowledge about identity theft -- to educate an audience on the issue. The kit includes a compelling 10-minute video featuring victims and law enforcement officials, a "how-to" guide for talking about identity theft and promoting the presentation, an easy-to-reproduce brochure, and a comprehensive assistance guide for identity theft victims.
Hundreds of organizations have reprinted the FTC's identity theft materials, including trade associations, academic institutions and other federal agencies. Further, the entire educational campaign is offered in Spanish as well as English.
"Drawing on the practical and easy-to-use materials developed by the FTC, DMA was able to create brochures, inserts, online advertisements, and other template materials for our members to co-brand and use with their current or planned direct marketing campaigns," said Senny Boone, a senior vice president at the Direct Marketing Association.
Local groups have benefited as well.
"We're a small office, so we don't have the resources to produce the materials we need for all our education programs," said Cathy Townsend Parks, Consumer Affairs Program Coordinator in Virginia Beach, Virginia. "The kit from the FTC really makes it easy for us to let people know how to recognize identity theft, and more important, how to minimize the effects of the crime."
It's impossible to quantify how many people were able to avoid identity theft thanks to lessons learned from the FTC's work, but the number of people touched by this campaign leaves little doubt that it has made a difference.
Since the campaign launch, the FTC has distributed nearly 100,000 kits, over 3.5 million copies of the victim assistance guide, more than 4.5 million copies of a brochure and more than 500,000 copies of a special brochure for military personnel and their families.
Information about identity theft on the agency's Web site has been accessed more than 26 million times. The program's biggest touch came in February 2008, when the U.S. Postal Service sent the FTC's Deter, Detect, Defend brochure to 121 million households with a cover letter from the Postmaster General.
Shanoff rarely lets an opportunity go by without inviting others to join the agency's informal network of partners, and pitching the materials the FTC has available. They're at www.ftc.gov/idtheft and can be ordered here.
(This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Visit www.ourpublicservice.org for more about the organization's work to recognize the men and women who serve our nation.)