Identity theft is a serious crime that can happen to anyone. It’s often difficult and time consuming to clean up the aftermath. The saddest part is that most people don’t know they’re victims until it’s too late. The good news is there are steps you can take to make it harder for someone to steal your identity.
Prevention Is The Best Approach
Someone can steal your identity in a variety of ways. However, one of the easiest ways to prevent identity theft is to shred all documents, old receipts and even junk mail that has any identifying information on it. Thieves often go through trash looking for these kinds of things.
Other ways you could become a victim are a little more high-tech. Skimming is one of the newest ways your information can be stolen. It happens when someone uses a special storage device to steal your credit or debit card information while processing your card. This could potentially happen anytime you use a credit or debit card making it next to impossible to prevent.
Phishing is another popular tool in the identity thief’s arsenal. They pose as banks or other companies and send spam or pop-up messages asking for your social security number, account number or other information. Never respond to these.
If you receive a message from a company or bank you normally do business with, call or email them directly. The important thing is for you to contact them. You know who you’re dealing with then.
If you receive phone calls, letters, surveys or emails requesting personal information, always check the source. And remember, you need to make contact with the company and find out if it’s a legitimate request.
Sometimes thieves will actually fill out a change of address form from the post office and start having your mail sent to them. This makes it easy to find out a lot about you. They can then call wireless companies, banks and other businesses you deal with pretending to be you and get even more information.
One of the best ways to prevent identity theft is to monitor your financial accounts including credit card and bank statements regularly. Also check your credit report and investigate anything suspicious. Check out the “Your Credit” section to find out how to get a free credit report.
Another good piece of advice is when opening new accounts, if the option is available always use a personal identification number (PIN) and password. Make sure these are not obvious numbers or words like your birthday, mother’s maiden name or anything else that would be easy to guess. I have a different PIN and password for every account I have. This way if one account is compromised it stops there. I handwrite them in a notebook and keep them filed away just in case I forget.
What To Do If Your Identity Is Stolen
There are four steps you should take immediately if you find you are a victim of identity theft.
1. Place a Fraud Alert on Your Credit File
Call one of the three consumer reporting companies and have a fraud alert placed on your credit reports. You only have to call one since they are required to report it to the other two. You should receive confirmation from all three companies. After the fraud alerts have been placed in your file, you can and should order a free credit report from each of the three companies. Go over these reports as soon as you receive them. Look for anything that seems suspicious. Things like new accounts you didn’t open, additional social security numbers, addresses you don’t recognize and employers you never worked for can all be signs that someone has used your identity fraudulently.
The contact information for the three consumer reporting agencies are:
Each should have a link on their home page for identity theft or you can call the toll-free numbers.
2. Close Any Fraudulent Accounts
Immediately close any accounts that you didn’t not open or any existing accounts that have been used without your knowledge. Contact the each company’s fraud department and let them know what happened. Ask them what you need to do to dispute the charges or purchases if any were made. You will also need to report this in writing to each company so find out where to send this. Be sure to send all correspondence by certified mail with a return receipt requested. Your post office can help you with this. Also keep copies of everything pertaining to your identity theft together because you will need it later.
Once the company has reversed the charges and resolved the issue ask them to send you a letter stating they have closed the account and you no longer owe the fraudulent charges. Keep this with the other identity theft paperwork.
3. File A Complaint With The FTC
You should also report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). File a complaint or call their toll free number 1-877-438-4338. Take a copy of the report to the police or sheriffs department when you file your report with them. The FTC will pass on your information to law enforcement agencies across the country. This can be extremely helpful if your identity thief is operating outside your state.
The FTC report can also be used to help get your credit report cleaned up and prove that the charges you are disputing are fraudulent.
4. File A Report With Law Enforcement
Last but not least, you should file a report with the police or sheriffs department in your town or county. Try to do this in person if possible and bring copies (not originals) of all supporting documents including the FTC report. Ask for a copy of the police report when it is complete to further document what happened and help get your credit report corrected.
Protecting Your Credit in the Future
For the next year it’s a good idea to check your credit report every three months to make sure no new accounts have been opened without your consent. The initial fraud alert you placed on your credit file only lasts 90 days. If you wish to have some level of protection after this you can “freeze” your credit.
A security credit freeze basically does not allow new creditors or third parties to access your credit report. This can help deter identity theft by preventing new fraudulent accounts from being opened in your name. It also allows you to temporarily lift the security freeze if you would like to open a new account. Existing creditors and their collection agencies still have access and can check your credit reports like before.
Be aware that identity thieves could still open accounts in your name that do not require a credit check like telephone or wireless accounts. So this protection only covers new accounts that require a credit check.
A security freeze does not affect your credit score but you will have to notify all three consumer reporting agencies and place a security freeze with each one. There is usually a charge for placing and lifting the freeze as well. This amount and the rules for placing a security freeze vary by state. Be sure to check your state's requirements through the three major consumer reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian, and Transunion.
To learn more about credit and your credit score including how to improve it check out the “Your Credit” section.