6 steps to take after identity theft

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It’s unnerving, violating and downright infuriating to have someone steal your personal information.

In an age of frequent data breaches, identity theft can happen to anyone. And if it’s happened to you, you’re probably wondering what to do next to clean up the mess.

Fortunately, you can take steps to get things back on track. Here are six straightforward steps you can take.

  1. Check all of your financial accounts
  2. Identify accounts that were compromised
  3. Put fraud alerts in place and freeze your credit reports
  4. Change your passwords
  5. Report your info to the FTC
  6. Dispute fraudulent activity

Before we dive into each step, let’s review exactly what identity theft is.

What is identity theft?

Identity theft happens when someone steals your personal information and fraudulently uses it for their personal gain. In many cases it’s for financial gain, such as opening accounts or making purchases, but it can come in other forms too.

Identity theft can take on multiple forms. Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert at Hotspot Shield, says it can include “new-account fraud, account takeover, medical identity theft, tax-related identity theft, criminal identity theft and child identity theft.”

Scammers can take personal data — like birthdays, names, passwords, Social Security numbers and more — to hack into your accounts or create false accounts under your name.

Now that you have a better idea of what constitutes ID theft, let’s learn what you can do if it happens.

How you can respond to identity theft in six steps

1. Check all of your financial accounts

If you think your personal information has been stolen, the first thing you can do is check for suspicious activity across all of your accounts. Do a review of your bank accounts, credit accounts and any other accounts that you think may have been compromised.

“Check all credit reports and document everything. If a thief has opened new accounts, or if there are any missed payments or accounts in default, [checking your credit reports] is a good way to know what you’re dealing with,” says Emily Patterson, security expert from ASecureLife.com.

You can check for changes in your TransUnion® and Equifax® credit scores and reports with Credit Karma, and you can check to see if your personal information was exposed in another company’s public data breach with Credit Karma’s identity monitoring tool.

“Save receipts and statements and make a record of all phone calls with lenders, credit agencies and law enforcement while you figure out what’s going on,” Patterson recommends.

2. Identify accounts that were compromised

Now that you’ve gone through all of your accounts, identify the ones that you think were compromised and write them down. You’ll want to identify each type of account that is compromised and take the necessary steps for each account.

3. Put fraud alerts in place and freeze your credit reports

If you’ve confirmed you’re a victim of identity theft, your next step is to try to stop any further damage. You can mitigate your risk of additional damage by putting fraud alerts in place and putting a freeze on your credit reports.

What is a fraud alert?

You can put a fraud alert on your credit reports by contacting one of the major consumer credit bureaus. When you place a fraud alert on your credit reports at one of the three major credit bureaus, that bureau is required to inform the others. Plus, it’s free. The fraud alert requires creditors to take additional measures to verify your identity when opening a new account. You can get an initial fraud alert, which keeps the alert on your file for 90 days. Or, if you’re a victim of identity theft, you can get an extended alert, which is valid for seven years.

A credit freeze restricts access to your credit reports so that lenders cannot pull them, which can prevent new accounts from being opened in your name. To freeze each of your credit reports, you’ll need to contact each credit bureau individually and ask for a credit freeze.

4. Change your passwords

Data breaches can expose your personal information. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. That’s why it’s important to change your passwords after an instance of identity theft or if your information is exposed in a public data breach. But you don’t necessarily come up with a password on your own, says Everett A. Stern, intelligence director at Tactical Rabbit.

He recommends generating your online passwords with a digital vault that provides a random key. That random key shouldn’t be used on more than one site, he says.

How to create and protect a strong password

5. Report your info to the FTC

The Federal Trade Commission has a site specifically to deal with identity theft — IdentityTheft.gov. Using the site, you can submit your information and let the FTC know what happened. Then, the agency can help you create an Identity Theft Report and personal recovery plan and help with forms and letters.

The FTC supports you along the way, guiding you through each recovery step and monitoring your progress. Also, in many cases, going through this process with the FTC can eliminate the need to file police reports.

However, if you know the person who stole your identity (or have other information that could help the police), if your info was used during a traffic stop or any other encounter with the police, or if an outside agency like a creditor asks for a police report, you should contact the police to report your identity theft.

6. Dispute fraudulent activity

You’ve checked your accounts, identified what’s been compromised and changed your passwords. Now it’s time to fight back and dispute any fraudulent activity. For each account that has been compromised, you’ll want to notify the company and learn about its process for dealing with ID theft.

If you’re contacting the company by phone about a new account opened in your name …

  • Call the fraud department of the company where the account was opened
  • Clearly explain that someone stole your identity
  • Ask the company to close the fraudulent account
  • Request everything in writing, for your records
    • Have the company send you a letter confirming that the fraudulent account is not yours, that you aren’t liable for the account and it was removed from your credit report

If you’re contacting the company by phone to remove fraudulent charges from your account …

  • Call the fraud department of the company
  • Clearly explain that someone stole your identity
  • Tell them which charges are fraudulent and ask them to remove the charges
    • We recommend having your information handy to discuss the fraudulent activity, such as dates and charges
  • Request everything in writing, for your records
    • Have the company send you a letter confirming they removed the fraudulent charges

Ultimately, you want to try to gather all of your information regarding the fraudulent activity, ask about fraud protocol, and ask when things will be resolved (for example, if someone took money from your bank account, when will that money be back in your account). And make sure you get everything in writing so that you can maintain a complete record in case fraudulent activity appears on your credit reports later.

How to reduce your risk of ID theft

Bottom line

Unfortunately, identity theft can happen. The good news is that there are steps you can take to get back on track. You can also sign up for Credit Karma’s Credit Monitoring service for free to help you spot suspicious activity on your TransUnion® and Equifax® credit reports.

About the author: Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about education, financial literacy and empowering people to take control of thei… Read more.