What to Do If Your Identity Is Stolen

Identity Theft

Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in the United States. Nearly 10 million people are victimized each year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Most families in America have had some brush with identity theft and the havoc it can wreak in people’s lives.

“The crime of identity theft undermines the basic trust on which our economy depends. When a person takes out an insurance policy or makes an online purchase, or opens a savings account, he or she must have confidence that personal financial information will be protected and treated with care. Identity theft harms not only its direct victims but also many businesses and customers whose confidence is shaken. Like other forms of stealing, identity theft leaves the victim poor and feeling terribly violated,” said President Bush at the signing of the Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act.

Identity thieves have developed a host of ways to gain access to your personal information. They may steal records from an employer or institution, bribe an employee to steal records, or hack into an organization’s computer. Using a specialized data storage device, they can steal credit and debit card numbers as your card is processed when you make a purchase. They may rummage through your trash, obtain your credit report by posing as a landlord or employer, steal your wallet or purse, steal your mail, or burgle your home or car.

Identity thieves may even get sensitive personal information directly from you by posing as a legitimate business person or government official. You need to be wary not only of the information you give out over the phone but of the emails you answer. Known as phishing, scammers posing as your bank or a government agency, like the IRS, email victims requesting personal information. The website you are directed to, though it may look official, is in reality a data collection site for identity thieves.

What Happens When Your Identity Is Stolen?

Victims of identity theft suffer not only financial loss but tremendous psychological pain and a feeling of violation. They may be harassed by debt collectors and have to cope with serious banking problems, loan rejection, or utility cutoffs. They may even face arrest for crimes committed by the person who stole their identity.

With the passage of the Identity Theft Assumption and Deterrence Act of 1998, identity theft became a crime in America. Federal and state laws often protect victims against financial loss but it is the severe disruption to their lives and the emotional damage that cause victims the most distress. On average, victims spend 600 hours trying to clear financial problems and repair damaged credit. In a recent poll, Americans feared only a terrorist act on the level of 9/11 more than the theft of their personal data.

Average Victim

The average identity theft victim is 42 and lives in a large metropolitan area. Eighty-six percent of victims have no relation to the thief. Unfortunately, most victims do not notice the crime for 14 months, plenty of time for the thief to wreak havoc with their finances, credit score, and community standing. The longer it takes to discover the theft, the greater the victim’s loss and suffering.

Scene of the Crime

Using your identity, thieves can authorize electronic transfers and clean out your bank account, open credit cards in your name and run up huge debts, open a bank account and write bad checks, take out an auto loan and buy a car, get ID such as a drivers license issued in your name but with their picture, get a job using your name, file fraudulent tax returns, even commit crimes using their victim’s name. Thieves often change the mailing address on accounts so you don’t even know what’s happening until the bill collectors and police arrive at your door.

Take a look at these actual cases of identity theft prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice:

  • In California, a woman used a stolen social security number to obtain thousands of dollars in credit and then filed for bankruptcy in the name of her victim.
  • Three people opened bank accounts using both real and fake identification, deposited U.S. Treasury checks stolen from the mail and then withdrew those funds for their own use.
  • In Florida, a man obtained names, addresses, and social security numbers from a website and used that data to apply for a series of car loans over the Internet.
  • A woman obtained a fraudulent driver’s license in the name of the victim, used the license to withdraw more than $13,000 from the victim’s bank account, and obtained five department store credit cards in the victim’s name to which she charged $4,000.

How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft

Identity theft is on the fast track to overtake drugs as the most prolific crime in America. With 10 million people falling victim every year, there’s a better-than-average chance that you or someone you know will fall prey to identity thieves. To minimize your risk, the U.S. Department of Justice says, remember the word SCAM:

Stingy is what you need to be about giving out personal information to others.

Adopt a need-to-know approach to your personal data. Be suspicious first, so you won’t be sorry later.

  • When you open a bank account or apply for a credit card, you may be asked to provide your mother’s maiden name to verify your identity. If you call them, they may ask for that information to verify that you are, in fact, you. However, if they call you, they should not ask for information already on file. If they do, suspect a scam aimed at obtaining your personal information.
  • Don’t have more information printed on your checks than is required, particularly not your social security number. Don’t routinely give people information about yourself that they do not legitimately need.
  • Before you put it in the trash, always tear up or shred receipts, credit applications, insurance forms, bank statements and any papers containing personal information.
  • If someone calls you on the phone with a credit card offer or the chance to win a prize, suspect a scam. Do not give out any personal information to strangers over the phone. Ask them to mail you a written application form. If they won’t, hang up. If they do send you a form, review it carefully and make sure your information is going to a reliable company or financial institution. Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if any complaints have been lodged against the company. Verify that the address on the form is the company’s actual address. Some scammers send out mailings (or emails) that appear to be legitimate but direct your information to a phony address (or website).
  • If you receive an email from your credit card company, bank, insurance company, government agency, etc., don’t give out any information until you verify that you’re dealing with a legitimate organization. If you respond, don’t click a link or cut and paste. You may be directed to a dummy site. Type the URL into the address line or call the customer service number listed on your account statement or in the phone book.
  • If you’re traveling and need to pass along personal information, do it from a secure location, not an open telephone booth where passersby can overhear.
  • If you take a trip, have the post office hold your mail or have a trusted family member or neighbor collect it.
  • Never leave your purse or wallet in your car. Only carry identification and credit cards you plan to use, leave the rest at home. Don’t carry your social security card with you. Always lock your car to prevent thieves from getting information from your auto insurance or registration cards.

Check your financial information regularly.

Pay attention to what you receive and don’t receive. Failure to receive information can indicate that someone has fraudulently diverted your mail to another address.

  • Bank and credit card accounts should issue monthly statements. If you don’t get one, call them immediately. Make sure they have your correct mailing address on file. If they show an address you didn’t authorize, tell the institution’s fraud department immediately, get copies of all transactions since your last received statement, and request further action.
  • If you receive a statement for a bank, loan or credit card account you did not open, report it to the fraud department of the institution immediately, request copies of all records, and request immediate action.
  • Check each transaction in your monthly bank and credit card statements carefully. If you find an unauthorized debit, charge, or withdrawal, report it to the financial institution immediately and request that they take action.

Ask for a copy of your credit report every year.

It should list all bank and financial accounts under your name and will tell you if anyone has fraudulently opened or used any accounts in your name.

Under federal law, each of the three big credit reporting agencies — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — must provide you with a free copy of your credit report every 12 months when requested. The link above is to a website the three agencies maintain jointly for this purpose. You can order your annual credit report from all three agencies at the same time or space your requests throughout the year and, for example, receive a credit report from a different agency every four months.

Maintain careful records

Maintain careful records of your banking and financial accounts, including credit card accounts. Retain checks and monthly statements for a minimum of one year. If a transaction or your signature is disputed, your original records will be immediately accessible and more useful than bank copies.

What to Do If Your Identity Is Stolen

Identity theft rob sits victims both financially and emotionally. The arduous task of repairing your financial records and credit for many is far more devastating than the loss of money. The fastest growing crime in America, we’ve been talking about identity theft lately (see our previous posts starting with September 8).

If, despite every precaution, you become the luckless victim of identity thieves, there are steps you can take to minimize the damage. As you are working to restore your identity and credit, make sure you keep all correspondence and make a detailed record of all your conversations, including the date, who you talked to and a summary of what was said. The longer you wait to act, the more damage identity thieves can do and the more costly it will be to you, so take immediate action.

Report the theft to the police immediately and request that a theft report be filed.

  • Filing a police report gives you greater protection and may be required by some identity theft protection/insurance programs.
  • Used in conjunction with the filing of a theft report to the Federal Trade Commission, it can provide you with certain useful protections as noted below.

Place a fraud alert on your credit reports and review your current credit reports.

  • Fraud alerts help prevent identity thieves from opening accounts in your name. Use the toll-free number below to alert one of the three major credit reporting companies. You only need to contact one agency as it is required to contact the other two.
  • Each company should send you a confirmation that a fraud alert has been placed on your credit report. If you fail to receive a notice from one of the companies, contact them directly and immediately.
  • When a fraud alert is placed in your file, you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the three agencies.
  • Review each credit report carefully. Make sure the name, address, and other information listed are correct. Look for companies you haven’t contacted, accounts you haven’t opened, and debits on your accounts you can’t explain. Report any discrepancies immediately.
  • For at least the first year, recheck your credit reports every three months after the initial theft.

The three credit reporting agencies and their contact information are:

  • Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; www.equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
  • Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); www.experian.com; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013
  • TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790

Close accounts you know or suspect have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.

  • Call and speak to someone in the security or fraud department of each company.
  • Follow up your conversation with a letter and include copies of supporting documents.
  • Written notification is essential, particularly for banks and credit card companies. You need to create a record of the actions you take. Send all letters via certified mail, return the receipt requested, and keep the receipt cards when you receive them in the mail.
  • Maintain an orderly file of all your correspondence and the originals of any supporting documents you enclose, as well as records of phone conversations.
  • If charges have been made to your accounts, request a fraud dispute form. Return it to the address listed on your bill for billing inquiries, not the address you send your payments to.
  • Once all disputes have been resolved, as the company for a letter stating that disputed accounts have been closed and that fraudulent debts have been discharged. This is your best proof of settlement should future errors appear on your credit report.

File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

Filing a complaint with the FTC provides you with one more level of protection. It also provides federal law enforcement officials with valuable information they can use to track down identity thieves across the county. You can file your complaint in any of the following ways:

  • Fill out the FTC online complaint form
  • Phone the toll-free hotline: 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338), TTY: 1-866-653-4261
  • Write Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20580.

Provide the police with a printed copy of your FTC ID Theft Complaint and ask them to incorporate it into their police report. The two reports together constitute an Identity Theft Report which entitles you to certain protections, including:

  1. Permanently blocks fraudulent information from appearing on your credit report.
  2. Ensures that debts do not appear on your credit report.
  3. Prevents companies from continuing to collect debts resulting from the theft.
  4. Places an extended fraud alert on your credit report.

Final Word

While there are many positive steps you can take, there is, unfortunately, no way to totally protect yourself from becoming a victim of identity thieves. Each of us has sensitive personal data stored on numerous computers across the country. Information about ourselves resides in computers or on data disks that contain medical records, utility information, government data, university alumni lists, bank accounts, consumer credit accounts, retirement plans, etc. Every week the news seems to carry a story about another presumably secure computer from an agency of public trust that has been hacked and the sensitive personal data it contains stolen by identity thieves. Every single one of us is at risk.

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