You didn’t think twice when you swiped your debit card at the gas pump, but now you have charges on your account from businesses you’ve never even heard of. Like most of us, you probably thought identity theft was something that happened to other people before you experienced card fraud.
First, rest assured you’re not alone. Nearly half a million cases of identity theft were reported to the Federal Trade Commission in 2018.¹ The good news from those high numbers is that credit bureaus, credit card companies, banks, and the FTC all have specific, targeted protocols in place so you can report and recover from identity theft.
In this article we’ll walk you through exactly what to do if your identity is stolen so you can move on with your life.
As the saying goes, the most efficient way to cut down a tree is to first sharpen the ax. We know you’re anxious to jump right in and put this mess behind you, but here are a few things to remember before you do:
Start a Paper Trail
When you start the reporting and recovery process, it’s essential to document every phone call, email, letter, and report. For phone calls, write down the date and time and who you spoke to. Make copies of every piece of correspondence, and store all documents together in a safe place. If your claims are ever questioned or disputed, this file will be your hard evidence.
Don’t Delay Having someone gain access to your personal info is a lot like if your house is broken into—the faster you get the intruder out, the less damage they can do. Speed is important as far as your legal rights as well, because the longer you wait to report a theft, the more money you may be liable for repaying, even if it’s money the thief spent in your name.²
Know Your Rights
Laws are in place to protect you from identity theft, and the more familiar you are with those laws and your rights, the more prepared you’ll be to insist you get fair treatment when working with credit agencies, financial institutions, and debt collectors. IdentityTheft.gov outlines these rights in easy-to-understand terms. It also details your rights for any court proceedings that may result from your case.
2. Stop the Bleeding
Identity theft recovery can be a long and involved process, but just like a major injury, first you need to stop the bleeding before you can repair the damage. Here are two essential steps to take before you move forward:
Close or Freeze Affected Accounts
Contact your credit card company, bank, or whatever company has jurisdiction over the affected account and tell them about the fraudulent charges, making it clear that you did not authorize those charges. Ask them to freeze or close the account. Be sure to document this contact.
Scan Other Accounts
Do a quick check for suspicious activity on your other accounts and freeze them as well. Identity thieves are sneaky, so even if you don’t think they could get to one account using another, check them all just to be safe. You’ll need to know the full extent of the damage before you can move forward.
3. Use IdentityTheft.gov
The Federal Trade Commission has done a very thorough job of outlining the identity theft recovery process at IdentityTheft.gov, so we recommend you start there. Here’s what to expect when you visit the site:
You’ll first report the theft by going through a simple, step-by-step questionnaire asking you for details about the fraud, including anything you’ve already done to remedy it. You will also be asked for your information and any information you might have about the suspect. At the end of the report, you can choose to give a personal statement if you like. You’ll be asked to review and sign the report before submitting it.
Based on your responses, the FTC will create a personalized, step-by-step recovery plan for you to follow, which includes instructions to close or freeze accounts that have been affected by fraudulent activity, freeze or place a fraud alert on your credit report, and file reports with local law enforcement agencies.
Because there are different types of identity theft, following your personalized plan will cut out any unnecessary steps. For example, you wouldn’t necessarily have to call all your utility companies if you’re experiencing Medicare fraud. The plan walks you through each step customized to your situation to make the process as painless as possible.
As you work through your recovery plan, the FTC will update your file and help you track your progress. You can use the FTC-provided pre-filled forms and sample letters to reach out to credit bureaus and ensure you’re covering all your bases. Using the FTC recovery plan will also help you stay organized and keep that all-important paper trail.
Pro Tip: IdentityTheft.gov has a page with contact information for most major federal agencies you might need to contact, like the USPS, IRS, and Social Security Administration, as well as major lending institutions and retailers (Verizon, Target, PayPal, Sears, etc.) so you don’t have to spend time looking up each one.
4. Protect Yourself
The next most important step on your path to identity theft recovery is to batten down the hatches and lock your identity up tight so no one can mess with it again. Here are the most important things you can do to protect yourself from future attacks.
Know the Warning Signs
Some warning signs are obvious, like charges on your account you don’t remember making or bills in your name for accounts you didn’t open. Others are less obvious, like the absence of bank account statements in your mailbox or insurance companies refusing coverage because of a preexisting condition you don’t have. Be on the lookout for any red flags when it comes to finances, and look into them right away.
Pro Tip: Worried about your kids’ identity being safe from thieves? As a parent or legal guardian, you have the right to create and freeze a credit report for your child so that no one can use it for personal gain. Find out more at Experian.com.
Check Your Credit Report
You are entitled to one free credit report a year from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Making sure that your credit report is accurate and current can help you stop identity theft before it happens. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com to get your free, yearly credit reports.
Consider Identity Theft Protection Services
The best identity theft protection services are like a security system for your personal information and finances: they keep tabs on your credit report and credit score and alert you to suspicious activity on your accounts. Most also come with a reimbursement guarantee if your identity is stolen, and they have identity theft experts on hand to help you with reporting and recovery. These services are a great option if you’re daunted by the thought of trying to keep tabs on your identity security yourself.
What can someone do with your Social Security number?
When it comes to identity theft, a Social Security number is like solid gold. It can be used to get a credit card, a loan, open a bank account, or even fraudulently file a tax return. Criminals can even give a false Social Security number when they get arrested or sell your SSN to others for a high price.
What should I do if my Social Security number is stolen?
If you think your SSN has been stolen, immediately contact the three major credit reporting agencies to have them place an initial fraud alert on your report. Be sure to report the theft to the IRS and the Social Security Administration as well, then visit IdentityTheft.govand follow the outlined steps for reporting identity theft.
How can I protect my identity online?
A good antivirus software will have anti-malware and anti-spyware technology that can help keep you safe as you’re surfing the web and downloading files. Many antivirus software programs also have social media protections in place to alert you to potential identity theft vulnerabilities in your social media accounts. Check out our Best Anti-Malware and Antivirus Software for recommendations.
Are my credit reports from all credit bureaus the same?
While they may have several similarities, they might not be the same because different businesses use different credit reporting agencies. For example, if a thief decides to use your identity to get a loan for a new car, the car dealership might check only your Equifax credit report, which means the credit check may not show up on your Experian or TransUnion credit report. This is why it’s important to keep tabs on all activity in your name by getting reports from all three agencies.
Kasey Tross is a stay-at-home mom with four energetic kids, and she's married to a security expert, so safety is a top priority in the Tross home. When she's not writing, she enjoys reading, hiking, playing the flute, helping out at church, and eating far more chocolate than she should. Learn more