If your bank account balance is precariously low because of a shopping spree on Amazon that wasn't yours, or you learn that you have a Gap credit card that you never applied for, you're probably a victim of identity theft.
Approximately 12.7 million consumers experienced identity fraud in 2014, according to a study by Javelin Strategy and Research, and a Bankrate survey found that about 4 in 10 Americans say either they've fallen victim to ID thieves or they know someone who has. If it happens to you, you need to report the identity theft, as a 1st step toward fixing it.
Hurry up and report
To stop an identity thief and protect your credit, you have to move quickly.
"Whether you find out you're an identity theft victim yourself or get an alert from your bank or credit card company, speed is of the essence," says Michael Bruemmer, vice president of consumer protection for Experian.
The longer fraud goes unreported, the more damage the identity thief can do, such as opening more accounts in your name or spending more of your money.
Let government watchdogs know
Bruemmer says go immediately to the Federal Trade Commission's IdentityTheft.gov website, which has extensive info on how to report ID theft and recover from it. The link to "Report identity theft to the FTC" will take you to the agency's complaint page to speed up the process.
"For the past 15 years, the No. 1 reported complaint to the FTC has involved identity theft," says Bruemmer.
The FTC's online resources help you document your case, follow an effective recovery strategy and tip federal authorities off to scam artists claiming to represent the government and businesses.
Inform police and credit bureaus
"Next, file a report with your local police department," says Bruemmer. "The police report helps you during the resolution phase of the process and is often requested by creditors."
In addition to the FTC report and the police report, you need to contact the companies where you know fraud occurred, to close accounts opened in your name or report fraudulent charges.
"You should also report your identity theft to all 3 credit reporting bureaus," says Bruemmer, meaning Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
"Customer service at any 1 of the agencies will help you alert all 3 bureaus," he says, "but I recommend that you initiate the contact with each individually, to make sure the alert goes through quickly."
Yellow light or red light?
When you contact the credit bureaus, you can ask to have a fraud alert or a credit freeze placed on your credit report.
"A fraud alert is like a yellow light when you're driving: It means that the credit reporting agency will be a little suspicious of unusual activity on your accounts," says Bruemmer. "It's not mandatory, but the bureau could contact you if an application for new credit is made."
A credit freeze offers a higher level of protection from fraud and functions like a stop sign, or red traffic light.
"A credit freeze means that no one can add any new account without your express consent," Bruemmer says. "But even a credit freeze isn't foolproof because your existing lines of credit stay on your credit report and are still vulnerable."
So, check all of your accounts for fraudulent activity. TransUnion's website recommends contacting every financial institution to let each know that your accounts may be compromised so you can be issued new cards and PINs if necessary.