10 Things to Do Immediately After Your Identity Is Stolen
Last year, more than 145 million Americans had their personal information accessed during a security breach at the credit bureau Experian. That’s 145 million people who could be in the crosshairs for stolen identities, not to mention the millions more impacted by breaches in recent years at Target, JP Morgan Chase and Uber.
“Most of us have had our information exposed given the number of breaches,” says Shaun Jamison, associate dean of faculty and professor of law at Concord Law School at Purdue University Global.
By itself, a breach doesn’t constitute a stolen identity. Paige Hanson, chief of identity education for Norton by Symantec, says state laws defining identity theft vary but the crime usually involves impersonating another person or using their information for financial gain.
Whether someone is opening new accounts in your name or running up fraudulent charges on your credit card, experts say you need to take action immediately. “If someone has stolen your identity, they’re working as fast as they can [to use your information] before you realize what’s happened,” says Ted Peters, chairman of the investment firm Bluestone Financial Institutions Fund and former board member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
What to Do If Your Identity Is Stolen
1. Lockdown the problem account. While there are several ways to learn about an occurrence of identity theft, unauthorized transactions on a financial account are often the first red flag. Consumers may be contacted by their bank about unusual charges, or they may see them on a statement. In that case, the first step is to contact the financial institution, dispute the charges and ask to lock or close the account.
3. Review your credit reports for mystery accounts. Your final stop when it comes to assessing whether you’re a victim of credit card fraud or a stolen identity is your credit report. Request copies from all three major reporting agencies – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion – and look for any accounts you may not recognize.
4. File a report with the Federal Trade Commission. Next, it’s time to create a paper trail to document the theft. Start by filing a report with the government’s Federal Trade Commission. As part of the reporting process, you’ll receive a recovery plan and even prefilled letters and forms that can be used to file police reports and dispute fraudulent charges. To get started, visit their official website at www.identitytheft.gov.
5. Contact your local police department. In addition to filing a report with the federal government, you should also contact your local police department. Although the police may not be able to do anything if your identity was stolen by criminals online and overseas, your report could help them track down someone who is stealing information locally.
6. Sign up for a credit monitoring service, if offered. If your information was accessed in a data breach, you may be offered complimentary credit monitoring. These services watch credit reports for suspicious activity and send alerts whenever a new account is opened.
However, consumers should be skeptical of any email alert asking them to click a link and verify personal information. Some scammers impersonate credit monitoring emails in order to gather sensitive data. It’s always best to log into the service’s website directly rather than clicking on email links.
If you aren’t offered free credit monitoring, you can sign up for a reputable service yourself. CreditKarma offers free monitoring of Equifax and TransUnion reports while other companies monitor all three bureaus for a price. LifeLock, one popular provider, has plans ranging from a $9.99 a month standard plan for Social Security number and credit alerts to a $29.99 per month service that will watch bank and 401(k) accounts as well as look for any crimes committed in your name. Both come with reimbursement for stolen funds.
7. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports. Now it’s time to follow up with the credit bureaus and request a fraud alert be placed on your account. Initially, a fraud alert will last 90 days, and it notifies any institution that pulls your credit report to the fact your identity may be compromised. The alert should prompt creditors to take an extra step to verify the identity of the person opening the account. You only have to request a fraud alert from one of the three major credit bureaus and that company should notify the other two firms. Placing a fraud alert on an account is free.
9. Adjust your account settings. Sometimes, identity theft is restricted to a single incident, but it can also be an ongoing issue. “Once your permanent credentials are out there, you really do need to stay vigilant,” Hanson says.
Do that by regularly updating passwords to online accounts. Make sure they are strong – meaning they contain a mix of letters, numbers and symbols – and don’t use the same password for multiple accounts. Delete any personal information such as addresses and phone numbers off public profiles on social media and other sites. You can also check with your financial institution to see what security measures they offer. For example, some banks, such as Chase and U.S. Bank, will text alerts if a transaction exceeds a certain amount. “If you’re not in the habit of spending more than $200, have that as your alert,” Jamison says. Then, if an alerts comes through for an unknown purchase, you can quickly contact your bank and secure the account.
Other ways to avoid future instances of identity theft include shredding documents with personal information, not carrying your Social Security number in your wallet and not clicking on links in emails from suspicious or unknown senders.
10. Consider a credit freeze. For an added layer of protection, you can initiate a credit freeze which will completely cut off access to your credit report. That means the credit bureaus won’t share your report with anyone who requests it.
“It can be a good thing, or it can be a pain,” Jamison says. While a credit freeze prevents others from opening accounts in your name, it may also make it difficult for you to receive approval for loans or credit cards. In the past, credit bureaus were allowed to charge for credit freezes in many states. However, starting this fall, a federal law will make credit freezes free.