What to do if your identity is stolen

Stressed woman holding credit card and tablet, trying to figure out what to do after identity theftImage: Stressed woman holding credit card and tablet, trying to figure out what to do after identity theft

In a Nutshell

The process of getting your identity back after it’s been stolen doesn’t have to be as stressful as you might think. There are several recommendations and user-friendly resources that can help you get started.
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Identity theft has reached staggering heights.

The Identity Theft Resource Center, with identity and data breach protection company CyberScout, says that there were 1,579 U.S. data breach incidents reported in 2017. According to the Federal Trade Commission, consumers reported losing nearly $905 million to fraud in 2017 alone — an increase of $63 million from what consumers reported losing in 2016.

Identity theft, also known as identity fraud, is when someone wrongfully obtains and uses another person’s personal information — their name, Social Security number, birthdate, residential address, driver’s license number, bank account number, credit card number, passport number, etc. — and uses the information in a fraudulent manner. It’s a complex crime and can often leave a victim lost in a sea of questions. Questions such as, what do I do now?

Keep reading to learn more about what to do if your identity is stolen.

  1. File a police report
  2. Contact the Federal Trade Commission
  3. Notify any affected creditors or banks to dispute the fraudulent activity
  4. Check your credit reports and consider adding a security alert or a credit freeze
  5. Change passwords to all active accounts

1. File a police report

Gather all the information you have regarding your identity theft (including exact dates, times and account numbers) and report it to your local police department. A good rule of thumb is to file the police report where the crime took place.

Some businesses or financial institutions may require a police report to remove fraudulent charges resulting from identity theft. This report acts as documentation. The documentation is not only for your records but also for any businesses requiring a police report, which likely wants the documentation to confirm you are being truthful about the fraudulent activity.

2. Contact the Federal Trade Commission

The Federal Trade Commission’s mission is to protect American consumers. With so many Americans being affected by identity theft, the FTC has dedicated an entire website to identity theft recovery. Check it out for yourself at identitytheft.gov.

The website provides tips and suggestions on how to protect your identity, and guidance on what you can do if your identity is stolen. It also provides an Identity Theft Report you can fill out, which is used to report the crime to the FTC. Plus when you create an Identity Theft Report the FTC will use that information to create a personal recovery plan that you can put into action.

3. Notify any affected creditors or banks to dispute the fraudulent activity

Depending on the type of fraudulent activity, your active credit card numbers or bank account numbers could be involved. Today, major credit card companies do a relatively good job of notifying consumers of suspicious or unusual activity on their accounts. The consumer may be notified by their financial institutions before they even know that a crime has occurred. This is good because as a victim of identity theft, you may not have to notify anyone at all.

Whether you report a fraudulent transaction or your creditor flags it for you, it can start the process of removing any fraudulent charges and getting the compromised account closed.

Credit card companies and financial institutions may have a zero-liability policy for unauthorized transactions for their consumers. The Fair Credit Billing Act, however, does limit your liability to $50 when you report unauthorized charges to the credit card issuer. Remember, time is of the essence with reporting fraudulent charges to financial institutions. You certainty don’t want to be left paying the bill for charges you didn’t make.

4. Check your credit reports and consider adding a security alert or a credit freeze

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau advises consumers who are identity theft victims or who suspect their information has been compromised to place a fraud alert on their credit reports.

There are two types of fraud alerts that can be added to your credit reports. Both types require creditors to contact you to verify your identity prior to opening a line of credit. This is a good way to reduce your risk.

Initial fraud alert: These last for 90 days. When it expires, the alert is removed from your credit reports. If you feel the need to add another alert once that time has expired, simply call back and add another fraud alert. After Sept. 21, 2018, initial fraud alerts will remain on a consumer’s credit reports for one year.

Extended fraud alert: These alerts can be added to credit reports for seven years.

To request a fraud alert or extended fraud alert on your credit reports, notify at least one of the three major consumer credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian or TransUnion). When you place a fraud alert on your credit report at one bureau, it is required to notify the other two.

A credit freeze is considered a powerful way for consumers to reduce their risk of identity theft. A freeze restricts anyone from accessing your credit reports — which many creditors require to open a new line of credit. This helps prevent new credit accounts being opened in your name. But unlike fraud alerts, a credit freeze must be requested through each of the three major consumer credit bureaus by the consumer.

The only drawback to a credit freeze is that if you want to open a new line of credit, say for a new credit card or to finance a car, you would have to contact the credit bureaus where you placed the freeze to either remove or temporarily lift the freeze. A small price to pay for your peace of mind, in my opinion.

Even with fraud alerts and credit freezes, frequently monitoring credit reports as a matter of routine is important. Many companies offer credit monitoring services. Credit Karma, for example, offers free credit monitoring of your TransUnion® and Equifax® credit reports.

Is there a fee to place a fraud alert or credit freeze on my credit reports?

As of May 24, 2018, The U.S. Congress passed a law under the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act requiring each of the three major consumer credit bureaus to offer free credit freezes to consumers. This requirement applies to the request for the freeze, as well as the removal of the freeze.

5. Change passwords to all active accounts

It seems as if everything requires a password. It also seems as if passwords expire as often as we change them. They are hard to keep track of, so they’re typically words or phrases that we can easily remember or change.

But easy or weak passwords are ultimately an open invitation to thieves. As annoying as it may be, change all your passwords for active accounts, and if an account doesn’t have a password, then add one immediately.

How does identity theft happen?

The advancement of technology over the past decade has put the world at our fingertips. But as beneficial as this can be in our daily lives, it can be equally useful to criminals.

As much as we might hear the warnings to never carry our Social Security cards, to continually change account passwords, and to never give out personal information over the phone, we probably slip up. The most common question I am asked by identity theft victims in my investigations is “where was my information compromised?” My response, “it could have been anywhere.”

Here are some common points of compromise and types of theft — some under our control, others not.

  1. Points of purchase at which skimming devices may be used. Payment card details can be skimmed at ATMs or gas stations.
  2. Documents with your personal information, like medical records, bank statements and credit card statements, may be targets for thieves
  3. Car or house burglary in which documents containing personal information are stolen
  4. Computers left unsecured, protected by weak passwords or infected with malware that records keystrokes
  5. Mail theft
  6. Data breaches at public companies
  7. Phishing schemes where the thief tricks you into providing personal information

While identity theft victims may never know where their information was compromised, one thing for sure is that their information is now out there.

Bottom line

Let’s face it. Being the victim of identity theft is just plain lousy. The amount of time spent calling around, conducting research on the internet and stressing out doesn’t seem fair. Fortunately, you are not alone and there are many resources out there to guide you through this.

Report the identity theft to your local police department and the Federal Trade Commission. Report any fraudulent charges to the appropriate institutions, check your credit reports, and consider adding a fraud alert or a credit freeze. Finally, make sure all your accounts are password protected with strong passwords.

Hopefully these suggestions are a good starting place to make this entire process a little more bearable, and a little less likely to happen in the future.

About the author: Sarah Schaut is a Canadian living in sunny Florida. She’s an economic crimes detective at a city police department and an expert in credit, fraud and mortgages. Read more.