How Good is the FTC's New Identity Theft Assistant?With tax season having just ended, millions of Americans are sighing with relief after getting their taxes done on time — or filing their extension to do them in October. Unfortunately, thousands of Americans are also learning that they’ve fallen victim to tax identity theft, and their tax refunds have been stolen. Dealing with the IRS can be unpleasant, so the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, has stepped in to help. The FTC has recently updated its identity theft assistant to include support with the IRS, letting tax identity theft victims file a report with the FTC and IRS while providing them with recovery resources. With this update, we thought that it was the perfect time to test the assistant out to see how effective it is at helping people report identity theft, as well as the quality of the advice it suggests. To see if the FTC identity theft assistant is a tool worth your time, keep reading.

How does it work?

The identity theft assistant starts out with a series of multiple-choice questions asking about your situation, with options such as “my information was exposed in a data breach” and “someone has my information or tried to use it.” It then asks you which of your accounts you think have been compromised, as well as whether you’ve experienced any fraud yet. If you haven’t experienced fraud and you’re simply concerned about potential identity theft, the assistant presents you with some advice for checking and securing your accounts, and it may ask you if you’d like to file a complaint.

If you have experienced fraud, though, the assistant will guide you through filing a report with the FTC, as well as the IRS if the fraud relates to taxes. The report asks you for some basic personal information like your name and date of birth, your contact information, details of the fraud and what you’ve done to sort it out so far. Once you’ve filed a report, the assistant will take you to a recovery plan, which is organized into steps with check boxes next to them so you can mark off the ones you’ve done. Each recovery plan is personalized based on your previous answers, so for instance, if you at one point answered that an identity thief is using your stolen government ID to rent apartments, you’ll get a plan that includes steps to secure your ID and clear up your tenant history. The identity theft assistant is available in both English and Spanish, and if you need help, you can live chat with the assistant’s support team Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST.

The good: simple and easy to use

The biggest triumph of the FTC’s identity theft assistant is that it makes getting the help you need for your specific identity theft situation easy. If you keep up with our blog, you probably know that there are a lot of different kinds of identity theft, each requiring its own particular approach to make things right, and the assistant’s personalized recovery plans help alleviate the burden of research for victims. The options for the multiple choice questions are clear, the identity theft report guide breaks down the report filing process into manageable pieces and the recovery plan steps are brief and easy to put into action.

Furthermore, the recovery plans are full of links that lead to tons of relevant resources, so you can start taking back control of your identity as soon as possible. For instance, if the assistant says you should check your credit reports and contact the three credit bureaus, it will include links to a AnnualCreditReport.com, as well as phone numbers and mailing addresses for Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The tool is designed to actively encourage you to put its information to use, rather than procrastinate.

The bad: sometimes lacks information and you can’t save progress

Unfortunately, the simplicity of the identity theft assistant can also be a weakness. It tries to make its advice as accessible as possible by paring it down to only what you need to know to carry it out, without explaining why the step is important, and if you want more detail, you’re sometimes left to find it on your own. As an example, in the section on debt collection it says you should send the collection company a letter within 30 days of them contacting you, but it doesn’t mention that that 30-day period is important because, afterward, the collectors can legally assume the debt they’re trying to collect is valid.

Occasionally, the assistant will have more detailed information that may apply to you, but won’t display it prominently. Some of the website’s most helpful resources, such as a basic rundown of your consumer rights and links to sample letters for credit transaction disputes, are tucked away at the bottom of the page. Considering most of the other resources are available through the assistant, that’s potentially hiding them from people who need them.

Finally, though the recovery plans are arranged like checklists that let you mark off steps as you complete them, the boxes you check reset if you navigate away from the page, and there’s no way to save your progress. Normally that means you would just have to leave the web page up to keep your boxes checked, but that’s difficult to do because the assistant kicks you back to the beginning if you’re inactive for about 15 minutes. This is probably to make sure people don’t leave half-completed reports full of personal information open on their computers, but it’s annoyingly at odds with the recovery plans’ checklist design. One way to combat this is to print out the pages with the checkboxes so you can physically check them off as you tackle each step.

Should you use the identity theft assistant?

If you’re an identity theft victim, particularly a tax identity theft victim, the identity theft assistant is a great first stop to file reports, get your bearings and find some initial advice. It’s set up so it’s straightforward, nonthreatening and encouraging. Once you’ve used it, though, you should probably look for more in-depth help, such as our identity theft protection blog, so you can get a more complete picture of your situation. Or, if you’re still overwhelmed, you can hire an identity theft protection service to monitor your accounts for suspicious activity and help you mitigate the damage you’ve already suffered. Visit our identity theft protection service reviews to learn more.