Becoming a victim of identity theft is a frightening experience. Too often, predators target victims with easy to fall for credit card scams and suddenly, a consumers identity has been stolen. Many consumers have no idea where to start when they discover that someone has stolen their identity. Taking immediate action will not only help to contain the damage to your credit, it will also help your credit recover quicker and get you back on the road to financial health.
Some very specific things exist that you should do as soon as you discover an event that has compromised your identity. Here is a review of the most important actions you should take immediately.
Contact the company or bank where the breach occurred
Closing down the affected account to avoid any more fraudulent activity should be the first thing you do. While most credit cards will not hold you liable for fraudulent charges, some institutions will charge you $50, which is the maximum liability they may impose upon you under the law as governed by the Fair Credit Billing Act.
If the breach involves your debit card or an unauthorized withdrawal from your bank account, consumers must catch the transaction quickly, within two business days in fact, in order to be held harmless (or up to the $50 penalty). If you lose your credit or debit card, you must report it immediately. Doing so will absolve you of any charges or withdrawals made after you’ve reported the card lost or stolen. If you fail to do any of the above, you could open yourself to a $500 liability limit extending out 60 days and, after that, unlimited liability.
Pull your credit report
It is vitally important that you obtain a copy of your credit report from each of the three main credit-reporting agencies. Sometimes, activity has been going for a longer period than what you were aware of. Carefully reviewing all three reports is important because activity may show up on one report but not another.
Identity thieves will sometimes probe vulnerability through small, insignificant inquiries and transactions. Making sure unrelated transactions don’t exist on your reports will ensure that you keep your credit report accurate. Look for things such as inaccurate personal information, credit inquiries that you do not recognize, and any accounts and/or payment histories that don’t belong to you. You must report anything that does not belong to you quickly and via the proper process of each of the agencies.
Activate fraud alerts on all of your credit reports
You can activate fraud alerts by contacting any one of the three credit reporting agencies. Once placed, the fraud alert will stay in effect for 90 days. Once you have made your reports to the proper agencies, such as your local police and the Federal Trade Commission, you can have the fraud alert extended for a period of seven years. While an extended fraud alert will help you protect yourself from further identity theft, it may make applying for new credit more difficult.
Freeze your credit
When you freeze your credit, you essentially control or limit who can see your information. This prevents anyone from opening any new credit accounts in your name. You can still apply for new credit while your credit is frozen, but you will have to lift the freeze temporarily. In order to do that, you will most likely have to pay a fee. You will be allowed to lift the freeze for a certain period, or you can request that freeze be lifted for a specific instance, such as when applying for new credit with a specific lender.
To make the freeze fully effective, you will need to institute it with all three of the credit reporting agencies. Most likely, you will have to pay a fee to all three to impose the freeze and to lift it. Recently, Equifax, one of the three major credit-reporting agencies, had a security breach that compromised the personal identity details of millions of consumers. In the aftermath, it agreed to waive the fees associated with freezing credit at all agencies, under pressure from consumer protection organizations such as the National Consumer Law Center. Additionally, if you can prove you have been a victim of identity theft, most of the credit-reporting agencies will freeze your credit at no cost.
File a Complaint and Affidavit with the Federal Trade Commission
Heading over to the Federal Trade Commission website and filling out an identity theft complaint and affidavit is also a very important step in getting your life back after an identity theft. Federal investigators are interested in every form of identity theft; even the smallest of cases can help them identify patterns and similarities. These patterns help them in tracking down and breaking up large rings of identity thieves.
You should complete the form in full, submit it, and print a copy for your records. Your filing of this document will help you in disputing fraudulent transactions listed on your credit report because of your stolen identity. In addition, while you should also get a police report, the report you file with the Federal Trade Commission will be significantly more comprehensive. Together with your police report, you will have excellent tools to dispute any fraudulent activity that affects your personal identity.
File a police report
Alerting and filing a report with your local authorities and the authorities in cities where the crime was committed is a very important step. Although many states allow their local police departments to take reports on identity theft, not all police departments do. You can obtain a letter from the Federal Trade Commission, which will state how important it is for consumers to be able to file a police report. You can provide this letter to your local police as a form of encouragement so it will understand its role in helping to stop identity theft.
Your report with your local authorities should include a list of all accounts compromised or fraudulently created using you identity, and a copy of your completed Federal Trade Commission identity theft complaint form. If possible, you should obtain a copy of the police report or, at the very least, have an official sign your Federal Trade Commission complaint form and include the number assigned to the police report in the section dedicated to this information, titled “Law Enforcement Report.” Make sure to note the name of the officer who took your police report, and any contact information you may need in the future.
Provide your creditors with a copy of your identity theft report
Reaching out to all your creditors and notifying them that you have been the victim of identity theft is also an imperative step. You should write to them and provide them with a copy of the identity theft report you filed with the Federal Trade Commission along with a copy of your police report.
Additionally, it’s important that you obtain copies of documents showing any fraudulent activity and that you, in turn, provide these documents to your local law enforcement agencies, and have them attached to your identity theft report. Sometimes, it’s difficult to obtain these copies, but don’t take no for an answer. These documents will enable you to provide the key information necessary to your creditors to keep them from continuing to report negative information to the credit agencies. Whether you have the documents in hand yet or not, always notify your creditors as quickly as possible. Doing so can contain the damage to your credit and save you time and aggravation down the road.
Make contact with all of the three credit reporting agencies
Once you have filed your complaint and affidavit with the Federal Trade Commission, you should send a copy of the report to each of the credit reporting agencies. This should provide the necessary proof to these agencies and keep them from adding the fraudulent accounts and activity to your credit report.
Although providing a copy of the complaint should help protect your credit status, you should check your credit reports on a regular basis to make sure that they remain clear of any of the fraudulent transactions or accounts. Sometimes, consumers can work very hard to have a fraudulent transaction removed only to have it reappear months later. It’s very important that you keep meticulous records, copies of documents, screenshots, and anything that can verify the identity theft that may be useful in the future. While cleaning up after an identity theft has become easier in recent years, it can still be a challenging process and one where a consumer may need to provide proof and documents to prove identity theft multiple times over a period of years.
Review all your accounts and change your passwords
Consumers these days are very lax about their passwords, primarily because there are so many to remember. Consequently, consumers tend to make their passwords painfully obvious in the interest of keeping them simple and easy to remember.
It’s important that you add passwords to unprotected accounts and change passwords that contain easy-to-decipher information such as phone numbers, social security numbers, birthdays, and pet names. Create unique passwords for important accounts such as bank and investment accounts, and make sure you change your passwords frequently.
Inform the Social Security Administration of your identity theft
Your social security number is one of the cornerstones of your identity. It’s a unique number, assigned to you and only you. When someone gains access to your social security number, he or she has the key to every aspect of your identity. Make sure you notify the Social Security Administration immediately in this case.
In addition, once you have contacted the Social Security Administration, be sure to request a copy of your Personal Earnings and Benefits Statement. Making sure that this statement is accurate is important because any discrepancies will likely affect you for years to come.
Ask for a new driver’s license number
It’s possible that the theft of your identity will require you to obtain a new driver’s license. This is because your driver’s license constitutes a primary form of identification. Most institutions consider a state-issued driver’s license the most significant form of identification aside from a passport. Take all your paperwork including the copy of your Federal Trade Commission filing and police report to your local Department of Motor Vehicles and request a new license with a new number.
Put your local utility and phone companies on alert
Utility bills and phone bills are commonly used to establish identities and as proof of residence. Motor vehicle offices often ask for utility bills as proof of residency, so if someone is trying to obtain a copy of your driver’s license, he or she may look to obtain copies of your utility bills. Make sure you notify your providers so they can flag your account to make sure copies don’t end up in the wrong hands.
Be vigilant going forward and protect yourself
While being the victim of identity theft is sometimes unavoidable, there are certain measures you can take to protect your identity going forward and make the compromising of your identity less likely.
Some things you can do to protect yourself include:
- Being careful when disposing of documents that contain important information
- Guarding your personal information by keeping it off social media sites
- Changing your passwords often and creating passwords that aren’t easy to guess
- Keeping key forms of identification, such as your social security card, in a safe place
In today’s world, keeping your identity safe can be a challenging process. Many consumers rely on identity protection through subscriptions services with companies such as LifeLock, who constantly monitor customers’ credit for signs of fraud or theft. While you can never be too careful when it comes to protecting your identity, you need to show discipline in your habits to protect your personal information.