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Identity Theft and Legal Help

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Identity Theft and Legal Help
Getty/Reza Estakhrian

Several questions come up when people talk about identity theft. One of the most frequent is, "If it happens to me, should I get a lawyer?" As a society, we tend to look at legal representation as a luxury reserved for the wealthy. That may have a lot to do with the fact that you can drop a paycheck to talk to an attorney for an hour. And if you need more than just advice, you may have to look at a second mortgage or your kid's college fund.

The FTC says an average of 25% of the reports they receive involve credit cards or bank accounts. Compare that with the fact that in 2009 the Consumer Sentinel Network found about one-third of the people who filed a complaint said their information was given to authorities when the identity thief was arrested. While most people believe ID theft is about money, a victim may find their driver's license suspended because of a DUI they never new about, or lose their teaching job because of a bogus prostitution record. An identity theft victim may have a business opened up in their name, and be arrested for defrauding customers, or have to answer to the IRS for unpaid taxes. The ways to get caught up in legal trouble are almost endless.

In an effort to fight identity theft, states are starting to put programs in place for victims. Typically, that process requires a victim to stand in front of a judge and prove they are a victim. Victims have to swallow their pride, and accept the fact that an identity thief doesn't have to prove much of anything to steal an identity. It's far easier to commit the crime than to clean up the mess – which may explain why identity theft continues to grow.

Who to Call?

If you are paying for an identity theft protection program, you might have access to legal help through that company. But some identity theft protection programs will specifically exclude legal help from their coverage. Or they may have a list of "approved" lawyers for you to work with, and you may end up unhappy with the time you have to wait to address your issues. Even if legal help is part of your program, there are often specific areas those attorneys will help you with. If your legal problem doesn't fit in the areas they cover, you'll still end up trying to find a lawyer through the regular channels.

You may have a good friend or family member who is a lawyer and can help you with your identity theft situation. The rest of us have to figure out how to find a lawyer when the time comes. Most of us will start with a web search. The first 10 hits on Google will usually only give you paid advertisements for various lawyers who can work with identity theft law, and sites that will refer you to lawyers and firms that specialize in identity theft. But they may or may not be able to practice in your state. (Lawyers are required to be licensed in each state they practice law.)

To find a local attorney, you may decide to contact your local bar association. They may give you the name of a lawyer, but you have no idea what his track record is, only that he is in good standing with the bar association. If you need to go this route, make sure the bar association knows the specific types of identity theft you're dealing with. Otherwise, they will most likely put you in touch with an attorney who deals with other financial issues (bankruptcy, credit repair, wills, trusts, etc.)

Always keep in mind the fact that the law isn't always logical. Anyone who's had to deal with legal problems will tell you laws are not always fair, and do not necessarily do what we feel they should. Also, when you're looking for legal advice, you'll find friends and family will have all sorts of information to share with you. Unfortunately, unless they are lawyers, they are often misinformed. It's always best to talk with a professional who has dedicated their life to the practice.

Working with a Prepaid Legal Program

One clever path through this tangled web is to approach the problem from the other direction. There are many prepaid legal programs available today, some of which include an identity theft protection service. This is probably the smartest way to protect yourself and your family, because the identity theft program will be specifically chosen (or perhaps even designed) to work with the legal services. It's best to be careful to examine the legal program closely to make sure it will address the needs of an identity theft related legal issue. Like insurance, these programs will only help if you have them before you become a victim.

Legal service programs tend to cost more than standard identity theft protection programs. While the typical identity theft protection program can range from $2.00 to over $30.00 per month, prepaid legal programs can run as high as $50.00 per month, or even more if you use it to protect a business. But most people that use these types of programs are very happy with the results they get, and will tell you it was worth the money they invested to subscribe to the program.

Perhaps the best thing about legal service programs is that they are often available as an employee benefit. Talk with your HR person at work to find out for sure. If there is one available, ask if it includes anything for identity theft. Even if it does not, you will probably find it's a good idea to enroll. This would mean you still need to find a separate identity theft program, but you would be able to get to a lawyer much more quickly.

When you're dealing with legal problems caused by identity theft, you'll be glad you did.

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