Don't panic, all is not lost if your identity is stolen.

5 minute read

Identity theft is a sort of buzzword crime these days. We hear about it, and we have an idea of what it is, but it’s still new enough that most people only have a bit of an idea as to what to do if they become a victim. 

Because identity theft usually tries to leverage your credit, it can have long-lasting repercussions as you try to eliminate fraudulent debt in your name and clear adverse items from your credit report. It’s a long road to reparation, but you’ll never reach the end if you don’t get started. 

That’s why we’ve put together this list of the six most important steps to take when getting yourself started in the process of recovering from identity theft. 

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1. Stop Digging

There’s an old saying: “If you find yourself stuck at the bottom of a hole, stop digging.” If you suspect identity theft but do nothing, the problem can get worse in two ways. First, whoever has stolen your identity can keep using your information to rack up more debt. Second, many credit accounts have a time limit after which you are responsible for additional fraudulent charges. 

The second you suspect you’ve become a victim of identity theft, call all of your credit cards and lines of credit. Tell them about your suspicions. Every one of them will have a process by which they protect you from further charges, and you’ll need to go through it. 

While you’re on the phone, ask if they have some kind of credit locking service. These services work through the major credit bureaus, and add a second verification step to opening new credit in your name. In most cases, it will be easier and cheaper to set this up through your credit card than to do it directly with the credit bureau. 

2. File your reports

To stop and reverse the damage from identity theft, you’re going to need a serious and official paper trail. This starts with filing reports at various points of authority. 

First, file a report with your local police department. Get an electronic copy of that report. Once you have that, contact the following list of other entities who should know what has happened. 

  • The Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft unit.
  • The three major credit bureaus: EquifaxExperian, and TransUnion. 
  • Any of your credit card companies who said they needed a police report when you spoke on the phone. 
  • All of your other credit accounts, such as lines of credit, auto loans, and your mortgage company. 
  • Any bank where you have financial accounts. 

If your case of identity theft involved the U.S. mail in any way, file a report with the Postal Service. That makes it a federal crime, and the USPS is surprisingly aggressive in their prosecution. Similarly, reach out to the IRS if you think your information has been used to file a fraudulent tax return. 

3. See to your banking

Make a list of every bank account you currently have, including which banks they are with and some of the recent bank activity you remember. Check each account for any kind of activity you didn’t authorize. Make notes, and immediately contact the bank where you hold that account. 

On top of that, get a list of accounts in your name at each of those banks. Because it’s easier to open a second account with a bank than your first, many identity thieves simply add accounts in your name. Confirm that all of the accounts with each of your banks are only the ones you created. 

Finally, close any accounts you suspect are compromised. Most banks can do this quickly, easily, and for free if you can demonstrate identity theft (using that police report you filed earlier). 

4. Track your records carefully

There are a lot of frustrating things about becoming a victim of identity theft. One of them is how much documentation many institutions require for you to prove charges and new accounts were created fraudulently. 

It doesn’t matter how you’ve always kept your financial records, or how you like to keep your financial records. For the next year or more, you need to track your activity as carefully as possible. You’ll do this for two reasons. 

First, the tight record-keeping will help you notice when new fraudulent charges hit your account. Even after you shut down the first wave of activity, identity thieves will often sell your information to another criminal, and they’ll try again weeks or months later. 

Second, you’ll need these records to reverse charges and begin cleaning up your credit score. The cleaner and more complete they are, the easier both of those things will be. 

5. Call check-reporting bureaus

If the identity thief has opened or accessed a checking account in your name, bad checks will start popping up on your record. It’s essential to get ahead of that, or it can hurt your ability to even get a checking account in the future. 

This is a time-consuming project you need to schedule into your day/week/month since there are several check reporting bureaus and they don’t always communicate well. You’ll have to call each one and ask if there are adverse items about you. Here’s a complete list of the major check reporting bureaus in the U.S.: 

  • CheckRite (800) 766-2748 
  • ChexSystems (800) 428-9623 
  • CrossCheck (800) 552-1900 
  • Equifax (800) 437-5120 
  • National Processing (800) 526-5380 
  • SCAN (800) 262-7771 
  • TeleCheck (800) 710-9898 

Take a morning off from work and call each one of these. Each has a department for exactly what you’re trying to do. If your name comes up with adverse reports, ask the customer service rep what to do next. This may be new to you, but they’ve probably done this twice already today. 

6. Check in regularly

Remember earlier when we mentioned that identity theft comes in waves? Your information will likely go on a black market for different scammers to try to use. That makes it important for you to check your credit report and bank accounts monthly for the next year or so. 

Similarly, you’ll need to check the progress of eliminating fraudulent accounts from your credit score. Credit bureaus aren’t highly motivated to move swiftly on your behalf (you’re not their customer). It will take consistent prodding on your part to achieve a swift resolution. 

Final thoughts

Of course, responding to identity theft isn’t nearly as good as avoiding it in the first place. Although modern identity thieves are good at what they do (often with sophisticated technology and networks to help them), you can make their lives much more difficult if you practice a few simple habits to secure your personal information. 

  • Keep your personal documents in a safe or safe deposit box 
  • Stay protective of your wallet or purse 
  • Minimize the documents you keep on your person when you’re out of the house 
  • Photocopy all cards and documents you keep in your wallet, and keep the copies in your safe 
  • Check all bank and credit card statements monthly for unauthorized charges 
  • Cancel as many junk mail and junk email lists as you can 
  • Cancel credit cards that you’re not using 
  • Practice good password security 
  • Protect your computers even more than you protect your wallet or purse 
  • Don’t complete transactions that require sharing personal information on a public Wi-Fi network connection 
  • Never give personal information to anybody who contacts you first 
  • Monitor your credit score carefully 
  • Shred your personal documents before throwing them away 

These won’t provide perfect protection, but they will make you a much harder target than if you don’t put these techniques into practice. Often that’s enough, as most criminals will simply choose to focus on an easier target. 

Norman Bayle is a cybersecurity specialist with a background in internet fraud monitoring

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Money Crashers

Money Crashers

Money Crashers' mission is to develop a community of people who try to make financially sound decisions. The website strives to educate individuals in making wise choices about credit and debt, investing, education, real estate, insurance, spending, and more.

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