According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 17.6 million US residents were victims of identity theft in 2014 alone.1 Identity theft remains a prevalent problem today—and the recent data breach at Equifax is evidence of such. The Equifax incident affects 143 million people, which is roughly 44% of US residents.
The Equifax event isn’t the largest to date. However, the sheer amount of information hackers managed to access is alarming. Sensitive information that pertains to credit history such as Social Security numbers, credit card information, birth dates, addresses, and even driver’s license numbers were hijacked from mid-May to July 2017. It’s hard to tell what will come of this breach, but it’s clear that a lot of people are at risk for some form of identity theft.
Having knowledge and resources on hand is the best way to protect yourself against identity theft. There is no surefire method to prevent identity theft from happening: you can simply be proactive, remain vigilant, and monitor your reports on your own or with the assistance of an identity theft protection service. Below, you’ll learn how to check for identity theft, what to do if your identity is stolen, and how to protect your personal information.
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What Is Identity Theft?
At a very basic level, identity theft is when someone (i.e. an identity thief) uses your information—without your consent—for their own economic gain. Note: Identity fraud and identity theft are synonymous. There can be different types of identity fraud, specifically in relation to your social life, medical care, or taxes.
- Social Identity Theft
The use of stolen personal identification information, such as photos or names, to create a social media account.
- Medical Identity Theft
The use of your medical ID number to fraudulently acquire medical services or attempt medical reimbursement from your healthcare provider.
- Tax Identity Theft
When a thief uses your Social Security number to steal your tax refund.
- Child Identity Theft
Embezzling a child’s information for illegal purposes, e.g., opening credit cards or cellphone accounts.
In light of the Equifax data breach, it’s more important than ever to keep an eye on your personal information, whether it’s a credit report or your bank, credit, tax, or medical statements. If your identity is stolen, you’ll need to act quickly and document all your interactions. But don’t forget to breathe and keep it all in perspective—identity theft is something you can recover from!
How to Check for Identity Theft
If you’re unsure how to begin, we compiled a short list of what to look for and where to look for it.
Where to Look and Monitor
Want to be proactive? Begin by reviewing the following:
- Credit report
- Utility statements
- Phone bills
- Government benefit statements
- Checking or savings accounts
- Student loan accounts
- You are permitted a free, yearly credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies—meaning you get three free credit reports per year. Some people request all three credit reports at the same time, while others stagger access throughout the year. However, if you need more than three in a year’s time, you can pay for additional reports.
- Looking for a secure site to request your credit report? Check out AnnualCreditReport.com. This authorized website works hand in hand with all three credit bureaus to provide you with a credit report. (Credit reports accessed through AnnualCreditReport.com do not provide a credit score.)
Potential Warning Signs
As you review bills, reports, and accounts, keep your eyes peeled for any of the following instances:
- An application for housing or a rental is made out in your name and sent to you.
- A bankruptcy motion was filed in your name.
- Withdrawals are made from your account or there are credit card charges that you did not authorize.
- You receive a notice from the IRS stating that your Social Security number was used to submit and receive a tax return.
- An employer you don’t recognize pays you.
- You realize your mail isn’t being delivered anymore.
- You begin receiving bills for utilities, cell phones, medical services, student loans, government benefits, or investment accounts that you did not open or instate.
- You receive phone calls from debt collectors regarding debts that are not yours.
What to Do If Your Identity Has Been Stolen
If you discover that you’ve fallen victim to fraud, you must move swiftly and diligently. Additionally, you should obtain copies of items such as police reports, fraud department email correspondence, fraudulent billing documents, related files, and recovery plans. Make a list of every person you’ve spoken to regarding the identity theft and how you contacted them (e.g., phone numbers, emails, etc.). Documentation is your best friend.
How to Report Identity Theft
- Contact the company or companies from which the fraud transpired. Articulate to the fraud department that your identity was stolen.
- Ensure that you close or freeze the fraudulent accounts.
- Immediately change your logins, passwords, and PINs for all your accounts.
- Instate a fraud alert. To do so, you must contact one of the three credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, or Equifax)—which one you contact is up to you. Upon placing a fraud alert, the credit bureau you contacted is required to alert the other two bureaus. Each credit bureau will send you a letter asserting that you elected for a fraud alert.
- Report the incident of identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC will provide you with a comprehensive case file and recovery plan. Save and print the report, as well as the recovery plan. We recommend creating an account through the website, which allows you to monitor the report and revisit your personalized recovery plan.
- If you want to double down on your efforts, file a report with the local police department. Inform them that your identity has been stolen and that you’d like to issue a report. When you do file the police report, make sure you bring along a copy of the FTC report, a government-issued photo ID, proof of residency (mortgage statement, lease agreement, etc.), and any proof of the theft you might have. Obtain a copy of the police report for your personal records.
- For tax ID or child ID theft, fill out the IR’s 14039 Form (Identity Theft Affidavit). Make sure to document any correspondence or communications you have.
- For medical ID theft, reach out to the services or offices where the thief used your identity. Explain the fraudulent incident and acquire copies of your medical records. The end goal is to review your records and notify your healthcare provider of any inaccuracies.
How to Fix Identity Theft: Your Recovery Plan and the Future
After you complete steps 1–6, there’s still work to be done. But you don’t need to panic. Simply follow the remaining steps, monitor your credit reports periodically, and adhere to the FTC-provided personalized recovery plan. Again, in order to receive a personalized recovery plan, you must make an account through the FTC at this website: IdentityTheft.Gov.
- Contact the companies’ fraud departments where the theft occurred. Inform them that your identity was stolen and close the accounts. If you have incurred false charges, now is the time to have them removed from your accounts. Request that they send a letter confirming the circumstances of the cancellation. Hold onto it for your personal records.
- Compose a letter to all three credit bureaus requesting that your credit report be corrected and amended to reflect the accurate credit score.
- Look into implementing a credit freeze or extended fraud alert.
- An extended fraud alert is free and allows creditors to acquire your credit report only if they can provide identity approval and verification. The alert provides you with two free credit reports in twelve months and lasts seven years. It applies to all three credit agencies and removes you from any prescreened credit offer lists for the next five years (however, you may ask the credit agencies to put you back on the list).
- A credit freeze prevents most access to your credit report. It also costs money to implement and remove—fees depend on the state you live in. With a credit freeze, you can still acquire an annual credit report, apply for new housing, purchase a car, and get a new job. Though, in order for a lender or business to review your credit report, you must request a lift on the credit freeze—be it temporarily or permanently.
- Continue to follow your personalized recovery plan. This will be your North Star.
How to Be Proactive: Identity Theft Prevention
If you haven’t had your identity stolen, yet you want to remain vigilant, we’ve got a few tips to assist you in the matter.
Identity Theft Monitoring and General Suggestions
- Enroll in an identity theft protection service.
- Leave sensitive information like your Social Security card at home. Items like that can easily get lost in the shuffle of daily life.
- Ignore solicitors: do not give out sensitive information because of an unanticipated request.
- As you gather your mail, dispose of or store it in a timely and secure fashion. Check out our helpful post on how to keep important documents safe.
- Keep your phone, internet, computer, and other smart devices safe with anti-malware protection software.
- Ensure that all of your passwords are complex and secure. Do not leave passwords lying around on sticky notes or record them in the notepad on your phone, computer, or tablet.
If you have any suggestions regarding identity theft protection, be it services, reviews, or suggestions, leave us a comment!
1. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “17.6 Million US Residents Experienced Identity Theft in 2014“