Millions of Americans are at risk of identity theft every year, from common types of fraud such as online hacking, credit (or debit) card skimming or even the stealing of mail.
Clearing your name and your credit report of fraudulent information can be tedious and overwhelming, but there are resources available to make sure you get stolen information sorted as quickly and easily as possible.
Still, you’ve got to act fast, especially at the beginning stages of a potential theft.
“Detection is important,” says Bruce McClary, vice president of marketing at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. “The longer you let theft or credit fraud sit on your credit file, the longer you let these criminals continue repeatedly damaging your credit history and using your personal information fraudulently. It leaves more for you to clean up.”
Early detection, which you can accomplish by regularly reviewing your statements and credit report, as well as signing up for alerts with your bank and creditors, can make it easier to repair any damage. Get your free credit report from Bankrate to begin monitoring for any suspected fraudulent activity.
If you do detect signs of identity theft, the time to take action is always sooner rather than later. Here are 10 steps to take if you feel that you may have been a victim of identity fraud.
1. Notify affected creditors or banks
Your first order of business should be contacting your creditor or bank as soon as possible.
Most credit cards have zero-liability policies and other protections for cardholders affected by identity theft. But in the case of credit card fraud, you are also protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act, which specifies that the maximum liability for unauthorized charges is just $50.
ATM or debit cards and electronic transfers from your bank account, on the other hand, fall under the Electronic Fund Transfer Act. Under the terms of this law, consumers must act fast.
Reporting a lost or stolen ATM or debit card before any fraudulent transactions will let you off the hook for any charges made thereafter. Otherwise, you have a short window of two business days after learning about the loss to report unauthorized charges or transfers at a maximum loss of $50. The liability limit increases to $500 if you report between two and 60 days after the statement reflecting the fraud is mailed. Reporting after 60 days can leave you with unlimited liability.
Regardless of the type of account you believe is compromised or the liability that comes with it, it’s in your best interest to report suspicious activity as soon as possible.
Once you’ve filed an identity theft report and a police report, you should share them with your creditor as well.
2. Put a fraud alert on your credit report
Fraud can negatively impact your credit score — leaving long-lasting effects — which means protecting your credit from further damage should be high on the list of priorities if you’re affected.
“Contact any one of the three credit reporting agencies and request a fraud alert,” says Steven Katz, former director of consumer education for TransUnion’s TrueCredit.com. “By doing so, a fraud alert will be put on all three of your credit files.”
Fraud alerts are free and, once placed, remain on your report for one year. If you’d like to keep the alert longer, you can get a new one after the first year. An alert makes it difficult for fraudsters to open accounts in your name; businesses must contact you before issuing any credit when a fraud alert is on your report.
“Filing a fraud alert is probably the best step for someone who is unsure if they are a victim,” says Katz. If nothing else, you can gain peace of mind.
If you are a victim of identity theft, you can place an extended fraud alert on your report, lasting seven years. Before placing the extended alert, you’ll need to complete your Identity Theft Report.
3. Check your credit reports
After setting up a fraud alert on your credit file, you’ll automatically receive access to one free credit report from each of the three agencies.
Comb through each of your reports for signs of fraud — new accounts you didn’t open, hard inquiries you don’t recognize, payment history you can’t account for, an employer you never worked for and personal information unfamiliar to you.
You may want to pull each of your credit reports again at least once over the course of the next year to check for any continued fraudulent activity.
4. Freeze your credit
“A credit freeze is a good thing to do if you know you’re a victim, as it will completely lock down all your credit information,” says Katz.
A credit freeze prevents the credit reporting agencies from releasing your credit report to new creditors. Placing a freeze on your report is free. You’ll just need to contact all three credit bureaus and request it.
For the strongest defense against identity theft, McClary recommends placing both a fraud alert and credit freeze on your report.
When you place the freeze on your report, the bureaus will issue a PIN or password, which you’ll need when you decide to lift the freeze. Losing track of your PIN may delay or hinder your ability to unfreeze your credit, so make sure to keep it in a safe place while the freeze is active.
There is no time limit to a freeze; it will remain until you decide to lift it, which you may do temporarily or permanently.
5. Report the identity theft to the FTC
In the United States, you can report your identity theft to the FTC by completing the online form at IdentityTheft.gov or by calling 877-438-4338 and providing as many details as possible.
By doing so, you’ll not only get a recovery plan from the FTC, but you’ll also receive an Identity Theft Report, which acts as proof that your identity was stolen.
You can save the report and recovery plan by creating an account through the FTC’s website or printing them yourself. You should have a copy on hand if you decide to file a police report and additional copies to provide to your creditors.
6. Go to the police
After you’ve reported the incident to the FTC, file a report with your local police department. You may also choose to report the crime to the police in the location where the crime(s) occurred.
Securing a police report can help protect you from further damages resulting from the theft. The FTC provides a memo to give to local law enforcement, which stresses the importance of police reports for consumer victims in these types of fraud cases.
Make sure the police report lists all accounts affected by the fraud and be prepared to provide as much documented information as possible, along with your Identity Theft Report. After filing the report, remember to request a copy for your own records. Keep the phone number of your police investigator handy on a contact sheet for future reference.
7. Remove fraudulent info from your credit report
After you’ve looked over your credit report, contact each of the three credit bureaus to have any fraudulent information you find removed. The FTC has a sample letter template that you can use to draft your request.
Along with the letter, include a copy of your Identity Theft Report and identifying information, along with details about which information is fraudulent. This allows you to remove, or block, the information from your report so it won’t appear and you won’t be contacted to pay any of the debts.
Continue to keep a close eye on your credit report, though, in case any additional fraudulent accounts are added later.
8. Change all affected account passwords
Change all of your passwords on any account that was affected by fraud. If one of your existing accounts doesn’t have a password, now is the time to create one.
You should always use best practices when creating a password, like using diverse alphanumeric combinations, avoiding obvious or identifying information (like your date of birth) and being sure not to duplicate a password across accounts. You can use a secure password manager to keep track of each new password.
9. Replace your stolen identification
If your Social Security card was stolen, you can request a replacement card online.
Notify the Office of the Inspector General if your Social Security number has been fraudulently used and create an account online to get a copy of your Personal Earnings and Benefits Statement, which you can check for accuracy.
If your driver’s license was compromised, you can contact your local Department of Motor Vehicles to report and replace it. If someone is using your license as an identification or there is a risk someone will, the number may be flagged.
For a stolen passport, the theft should be reported to the State Department either online, by mail or by phone at 877-487-2778. You can replace a passport by making an appointment at a Passport Agency or Center (for expedited requests) or by applying for replacement at a passport acceptance facility.
10. Contact your telephone and utility companies
Your utility providers and telephone carriers should be alerted in case an identity thief tries to open a new account in your name, using a utility bill as proof of residence. If an account was opened in your name, explain what happened to the service provider and ask for the account to be closed.
For more information and details on each step to take in the event of identity theft, see the FTC’s guidelines found at IdentityTheft.gov.