My Identity Has Been Stolen. Now What?
Don’t panic! The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and Transunion) have responded to the growing threat of identity theft with processes that you can follow to limit its impact on your credit.
If your identity has been stolen, your first move should be to download “Taking Charge,” a free PDF offered by the FTC. This 68-page guide offers a detailed plan for responding to identity theft, as well as expert advice, worksheets, sample letters and more.
Let’s take a look at the four basic steps you will follow to respond to the theft of your identity, protect your credit score and, ideally, seek justice against the perpetrators.
1. Start a Log.
Open a new document on your computer or grab a fresh notebook. You will be making a number of phone calls, and you need to log the date, time, phone number and name of every customer service representative and law enforcement agent you speak with. Prepare your questions before each call and take down all the information you get in response.
If you rack up any expenses, note those as well. The IRS allows taxpayers to deduct expenses incurred as a result of identity theft, and if the criminals are caught, you may be able to sue them for compensation.
2. Make Your Calls.
If all the fraudulent activity you have detected is on one credit card, and you haven’t lost your wallet, you need only call that credit card provider. They will close the account (and reopen it with a new card number, if you like) and you will work together to identify unauthorized charges.
If your wallet is missing or you have any reason to suspect the fraudulent activity is not limited to a single card, you have to contact the FTC and your credit card and debit card providers. If you keep your Social Security card in your wallet — which is not a good idea — you must report the theft to the Social Security Administration (800-269-0271) and the IRS (800-829-0433).
Next, you must contact Equifax (800-525-6285), Experian (888-397-3742) or Transunion (800-680-7289) to begin the process of “freezing” your credit so no one can open new accounts in your name. It doesn’t matter which agency you call; each is required to notify the other two.
If your personally identifiable information is exposed as part of a data breach of a third party’s computer system — such as the recent breaches that affected holders of Target and Neiman Marcus store credit cards — you will be contacted by the company that suffered the breach. Follow their instructions to the letter, and if they offer any form of ongoing credit protection, take it.
3. Create an Identity Theft Report.
Your identity theft report will represent the culmination of all your efforts. It has two components: an FTC-generated “identity theft affidavit” and a police report.
To create your identity theft affidavit, simply follow the instructions outlined in “Taking Charge.” To create a police report, contact your local police department, even if the theft of your information took place elsewhere. If your local police department tells you they can’t help you because the crime took place outside their jurisdiction, stand your ground. They are required by law to take your complaint and generate a report.
If your identity was compromised by stolen mail or you believe an identity thief has submitted a change-of-address form in your name, you should also contact the Postal Inspection Service (877-876-2455).
Your identity theft report, along with your own documentation, creates a paper trail that will prove you aggressively pursued the issue and sought remedy. This could prove extremely useful down the road.
4. Monitor Your Credit.
The freezes you place on your credit — and, in cases of third-party identity theft, the protection offered by your card provider — will entitle you to a free credit report from each of the three agencies. But you don’t have to wait.
Each of the bureaus is required to provide a free report upon your request once a year, and you can order them via AnnualCreditReport.com. You may also opt to sign up for a paid credit monitoring service, which will likely offer fraud alerts and the ability to order credit reports as frequently as you wish, among other services.
Identity theft is no laughing matter, but it’s not the end of the world. Follow the process, document everything, and be aggressive. With any luck, you will avoid catastrophic damage and justice will be served.
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