What to do if you’re a victim of Identity Theft
Every day, thousands of honest, hard-working people unknowingly have their personal information stolen by identity thieves. Information including your full name, social security number, credit card or bank account number, and medical insurance account number can be fraudulently used by a thief to assume your identity for their own financial gain.
With your personal information in hand, a thief can use it to apply for credit, steal your tax return, open a phone, gas or electric account, rent an apartment, and even receive medical care. Any one of these acts can substantially damage your credit when bills go unpaid because (1) they aren’t your charges and (2) you’re unaware of the activity. It’ll also cost you a considerable amount of time and energy to restore your good name and credit standing.
Best ways to prevent identity theft
While we all may be at risk for identity theft, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself and your personal information:
- Keep your social security number secure; don’t carry your card with you and only provide the number when absolutely necessary.
- Be selective when providing personal information by phone, mail or online and never respond to unsolicited requests.
- Keep passwords private and protect them from view when typing on a computer or ATM. Make sure they’re complex and not easy to guess.
- Request a free copy of your credit report once a year. Review it for open accounts, credit inquiries, delinquencies and any other suspicious activity.
- Review your monthly credit card bills for any unauthorized charges and pay attention to billing cycles.
- Promptly collect your mail every day and put a hold on your mail when you are out of town.
- Shred receipts, credit card offers, account statements, expired cards, and any other documents that include personal or account information.
- Install firewalls and virus-detection software on your home computer.
Look for the signs
Your identity is one of the most important assets you own and should be guarded and monitored with that in mind. Look for the warning signs that your identity may have been compromised, which can be alerts from your bank, unfamiliar activity in your credit card accounts, changes in your credit score, missing bills for standard services like gas or electric, or any other suspicious activity.
What if you’re a victim?
If you’ve been a victim of identity theft, it’s important to act quickly. Here are the steps you can take to minimize the negative consequences and to alert the necessary authorities in the most efficient way possible:
1. Put a fraud alert on your credit reports
A fraud alert notifies lenders and creditors to take extra precautions when verifying your identity before extending credit. Contact one agency, (Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion) and they’ll contact the remaining two. Initial fraud alerts are free and remain in place for 90 days.
2. Check your Social Security number
One of the first things to do is check and see if your social security number has been compromised. If your number is part of the theft, it’s important to contact the Social Security Administration (800-269-0271) and the Internal Revenue Service (800-829-0433) to report and correct the activity.
3. Report the fraud to your financial institutions
If your credit card was stolen, report it to the credit card issuer. If your checkbook or debit card was stolen, contact your bank. It’s especially helpful if you have a list of institutions and phone numbers prepared in advance. Make sure this file is encrypted and not able to be easily accessed by identity thieves.
4. Contact the authorities
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allows citizens to file an Identity Theft Affidavit to create an Identity Theft Report. In order to fully file an Identity Theft Report, you need to report them the theft to local law enforcement. Have the police department send you a copy of the report and take down the report number. You can file an identity theft report online by clicking here or call the FTC at 1-877-438-4338. Filing an Identity Theft Report is a smart way to help credit reporting agencies identify who the thief may have contacted and determine where accounts were opened in your name.
5. Check-in with the Post Office
It’s not uncommon for identity thieves to submit a fraudulent change-of-address in order to access checks and new credit cards. It’s smart to check with the Post Office to see if any unusual activity has occurred. If there is fraud, you may need to contact the Postal Inspection Service to file a formal report.
Learning that you’ve identity has been stolen can be incredibly stressful, especially when the consequences can wreak havoc on your finances. Being diligent and protecting your personal information can help save you from that anxiety. But even if you do fall victim, acting fast and knowing who to contact will still offer some sense of control.