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A Modern Mom Reveals the Bigger Picture

by Neal O'Farrell on November 12th, 2010

The following blogpost comes from Michelle Schafer of The Merritt Group, the Public Relations firm that publicized the launch of the ITC. She specializes in security matters and PR strategies centered around organizations that keep people safe, her Twitter stream a mix of headlines, security tips, and RTs from other security-minded accounts. This week, Michele posted her perspective of the ITC Launch, a heartfelt look at her involvement with us as well as a behind-the-scenes look at a mother earning a few “cool parent” points with her child. With permission from Michelle and The Merritt Group, we are running this column in syndication. We hope you pay them a visit and comment.

— Neal O’Farrell

One of the biggest challenges of being a PR professional – and a mom – is the time I have to spend away from home. The toughest part is always telling my nine-year-old son that I have to go to another city for several days to help a client with a major launch event. The look of disapproval on his face is always heart-wrenching.

Recently, however, I went on to San Francisco to work on a different sort of launch – one that made me truly proud. My PR firm, Merritt Group, had the great privilege of helping to launch the nation’s very first Identity Theft Council (ITC) in San Francisco. Founded by long-time security expert Neal O’Farrell, the ITC is a new non-profit organization that provides community-based identity theft victim support and other education and awareness initiatives by working hands-on with law enforcement to tackle this growing crime. It’s backed by some amazing organizations too – ITAC, the Identity Theft Assistance Center, Intersections Inc., the Elder Financial Protection Network, the Online Trust Alliance and the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA).

It’s almost baffling that until now, there hasn’t been anything like the ITC out there that brings the community together to help victims recover and restore their identities when law enforcement can’t help.  Not to mention the ITC is reaching out specifically to help the most vulnerable prey of all:  the elderly and the younger generation, our nation’s high school students.

Having been in security PR for 7 plus years, I’ve seen the world of cyber crime evolve from the simple Melissa virus to the Blaster worm to the now very complex Zeus botnet and other Trojans that steal money from honest, hard working citizens.  Right now, we are truly in what Neal calls a “perfect storm” for identity theft to continue its ugly spread:

  • Organized cyber crime and sophisticated malware attacks are on the rise;
  • Security vendors are struggling to push out new protections to keep up with stealthy threats;
  • Banks are fighting for survival and aren’t able to address today’s threats as well as they want to;
  • Consumers have become apathetic and assume identity theft crimes will be taken care of by their financial institutions (“not my problem” attitude);
  • The down economy further lends itself to acts of desperation where a once normal, good-standing citizen turns to the dark side and becomes an identity thief; and
  • Law enforcement (rightfully) must deal with more urgent crimes, such as local homicides and burglary cases, leaving identity theft cases sitting at the bottom of its paperwork stack.

If you think about all those forces coming together, it’s no wonder that identity theft is the No. 1 fastest growing crime in America.  Statistics tell us that the city of San Francisco has the highest rates of identity theft, which is why it makes a lot of sense to launch the first Council there. It’s refreshing to know that the ITC will be there to help victims of identity theft deal with this devastating crime.

I’ve lost my own wallet before, so I know the panic and all the “what if” questions that race through your mind when your personal information is at risk.  And through Merritt Group’s two years of work with Intersections Inc. (Founding Partner of the ITC), we’ve heard the horror stories of how someone can completely ruin your credit and buy cars, homes, and goodness knows what else in your name — all because maybe you fell for a phishing scam or someone got your debit card number from an insecure wi-fi access point. Identity theft can literally change your life.  It can take months – even years of aggravation and stress, and a lot of money, to get your identity back.

I have to say that in all my PR launches over the years, I’m particularly proud of this one. The development of this non-profit – from concept creation to launch – has been almost a year in the making. Our team has spent countless hours with ITC’s Executive Director Neal O’Farrell and its founding sponsor, Intersections, to help prepare for this launch.  So as you can imagine, it is very rewarding on so many levels to finally come out of stealth mode to let the world know that there is finally a place victims of identity theft can turn to when all hope feels lost. And the ITC isn’t stopping in San Francisco – we’re going nationwide to help victims across the U.S.  Last week’s launch event was just the beginning.

The work that the ITC is doing strikes me as being incredibly important, not only for the security industry, but for everyone who might become an innocent victim of identity theft. For the ITC, it’s not about technology or competition or even money. It’s about doing something concrete to help those who are hurt by cybercrime, and preventing others from falling victim to those same crimes.

Happily, my nine-year-old son agrees. Before I hopped on the plane to San Francisco, I sat down and explained to him what identity theft is, how it all works, what the ITC is and why it was so important for me to be present at this launch event. I also explained how every day I work with security vendors and other groups that are trying to come up with innovative solutions to protect not only against identity theft threats, but also “the bad guys” who threaten to damage our nation’s critical infrastructure.

I might have scared him a little — but for the first time ever, I feel like he’s starting to understand what I do at work and why I take my job so seriously. It was probably the first time I ever got his blessing on my work travel too! Why? Because he finally understands that Mommy and her PR firm are making contributions through the ITC – and other security firms — to “stop the bad guys.”  In the eyes of a child, that makes Mommy a “hero,” and it made me feel good to get his understanding and approval.

Of course, I know that the real heroes are those who will work for the ITC – the organizers of the local cybersecurity communities, the identity theft counselors, the law enforcement  professionals, the volunteers who help raise security awareness, and of course, sponsors like Intersections, who are putting their money where their mouth is to help curb cybercrime. To be successful, the ITC will need the help of many community workers – maybe even people like you – who truly can make a difference.

And me?  I’m just happy to be playing even a small part in getting the ITC off the ground. And that, this time, a long work trip away made me the good guy – both on the road and at home.