“Help! I’ve been the victim of identity theft!” I can’t tell you how often I get those calls to my office. People rarely expect it to happen to them and when it does, they feel at a loss to know exactly what to do.
There are several things you should do if your identity is stolen but here are the very first five actions to take as soon as you discover that you are a victim:
1. Contact the creditors of the accounts that were compromised.
That could include loans, credit cards, utilities, bank accounts, etc. In some cases, you might be responsible for some of the charges incurred, but that is handled on a case-by-case basis from each service provider or lender. Worry about that later. At this point, you need to alert them to the fraudulent activity to help prevent any further misuse of your account.
2. Call the Police.
Identity theft is a crime and the police need to know about it. Unfortunately, thousands of cases go unreported every year because people don’t realize it has happened or because they don’t think the police can do anything about it. The truth is: The police may not always be able to do something about it immediately (i.e. if it occurred months ago and the clues are cold) but your report might help and, at the very least, having a police report can help you in the other steps of this list…
3. Contact the Federal Trade Commission.
“Call the FTC’s identity theft hotline at 877-438-4338 and file a complaint. The FTC does not resolve individual consumer problems itself, but your complaint may lead to law enforcement action”, says Michele Cacdac-Jones, senior director of communications and public relations at Equifax.
4. Get a Copy of Your Credit Reports.
Get your credit reports for free once per year from all three credit reporting bureaus (online is faster). You might also want to check your credit score to get an overarching view of how your credit has been affected (one resource for that is Credit.com’s Credit Report Card that allows you to check your score once a month for free). A small identity theft clue on your credit card statement might hint at larger identity theft problems on your credit report that you are not aware of. Check everything, but in particular check your credit report for address information that doesn’t belong to you and credit accounts that do not belong to you. While you are at it, place an initial 90-day fraud alert on your credit reporting. You can do this at any of the three credit reporting agencies and they will pass on the fraud alert to the other two credit reporting agencies. Fraud alerts are free and they offer an additional layer of protection by requiring new creditors to prove that you authorized the inquiry.
5. Keep Accurate Records of Everything.
Create a document that lists the dates and times of all of the actions you take, as well as the people you talk to, what information was discussed, and how long each action took. This record will help you to keep track of the wave of information that will now be going back and forth between you and several other people, plus it can be a helpful record if the case ever leads to a civil or criminal lawsuit. (Bonus tip from Michele Cacdac-Jones of Equifax: “Send all letters by certified mail and keep copies.”)
Additionally, there are other resources for victims of identity theft that are worth looking into. Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of both Credit.com and Identity Theft 911 says: “Before you panic, make a call to your insurance agent, banking or credit union representative or human resources department to find out if you have access to a damage control program devised to help victims of identity theft. You may well be pleasantly surprised that you are already (or can easily be) enrolled in one. In many cases they are either free as a perk of the relationship, or you can join for a very reasonable fee.” If those services aren’t available to you, he says, still don’t panic, but definitely follow the five guidelines above.
These immediate actions will help to get your started on reviewing the situation and starting to sort things out. From this point, it will frankly take some effort to pinpoint the problem and work things out with lenders and the credit reporting agencies, but these first five actions are the initial first steps to help contain the damage once you discover your identity is stolen.