Reports indicate that identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the United States. In fact, the FTC lists identity theft as the most reported crime for 2008. Identity thieves use personally identifying information of unsuspecting individuals to open new accounts and misuse existing accounts, creating havoc for individuals and business and costing millions of dollars. To help slow the frequency of these offenses, the federal government passed the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (PDF).

Under the FACT Act, a number of federal agencies, including the FTC, the federal bank regulatory agencies, and the National Credit Union Administration, issued regulations (“Red Flags Rules”) requiring financial institutions and creditors to develop and implement written identity theft prevention programs to detect, prevent, and mitigate instances of identity theft. These programs must be designed to provide for the identification, detection, and response to patterns, practices, or specific activities – known as “red flags” – that could indicate identity theft.

The Red Flag Rules apply to “financial institutions” and “creditors” with “covered accounts.” The FTC has broadly interpreted the term “creditors” to include professionals such a lawyers and doctors. However, the U.S. House of representatives passed H.R. 3763 which would exclude from the meaning of “creditor” any health care practice, accounting practice, or legal practice with 20 or fewer employees. Currently, this Bill awaits action by the Senate.  Similarly, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently ruled that the FTC cannot force practicing lawyers to comply with the red flags, holding that she had a problem concluding that Congress intended to regulate lawyers when these statutes were enacted. 

Given the November 1, 2009 enforcement date, and the unresolved definition of "creditor," businesses of all sizes and industries will need to take immediate steps to develop a comprehensive strategy for compliance with the Red Flag Rules. Here is helpful information for the Red Flag Rules and small businesses.

Update:  Since the publishing of this post, the FTC has again extended the enforcement date to June 1, 2010.  Additionally, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia upheld the American Bar Association’s challenge to the Rule and the opinion enjoins the FTC from enforcing the Rule against lawyers.