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9 Things to Do Immediately After Your Identity Is Stolen

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 8/5/2015 Maryalene LaPonsie

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While Kyle Woodley was flying home from a conference in Florida, his credit card was busy buying things in North Carolina. The managing editor of InvestorPlace.com says he stepped off the plane to a flurry of messages from his bank asking him to confirm the charges. Fortunately, Woodley acted quickly, and within three weeks, the charges were wiped from his account. 

“Someone had gotten the credit card number,” says Woodley, adding he was grateful it wasn’t his debit card number. “There’s a huge difference between your credit card being locked up and your bank account being wiped out.”

Technically, a single compromised account is considered credit card fraud and not identity theft, but it can be difficult to distinguish between the two at the start. Unauthorized credit card purchases could signal a one-time security breach, or they could indicate all your sensitive, personal information has been accessed. Either way, quick action is needed on your part.

“The first thing to do is move actively and move aggressively,” says Ted Peters, CEO of the investment firm Bluestone Financial Institutions Fund and former board member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. “If someone has stolen your identity, they’re working as fast they can [to use your information] before you realize what’s happened.” 

To minimize the potential damage, you should take the following nine steps as soon as you think your identity has been stolen.

1. Lockdown the problem account.

While there are several ways to learn about a compromised account, many people discover the problem just as Woodley did. They 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. 

2. Sign up for a credit monitoring service, if offered.

© Phil Coale/AP/Corbis Database breaches are another way many people learn they are potentially at risk for identity theft

Last year, 1.1 billion records were compromised worldwide, according to Michael Bruemmer, vice president of consumer protection at Experian Consumer Services. 

While not required by law, some companies offer complementary credit monitoring to victims of a breech. Bruemmer stresses that consumers must sign up for this service for it to be activated. “There is no such thing as automatically enrolling in fraud monitoring,” he says.

If you receive a notification alerting you to a data breach, read the letter carefully and take the appropriate steps to begin any free credit monitoring that may be offered.

3. Scan credit card and bank statements for other unauthorized charges.

Next, pull up your other accounts and scan old statements for other charges you don’t recognize. Don’t forget to review dormant or infrequently used accounts as well.

If you find unknown charges, call the financial institutions to alert them of the problem and request the account be locked or closed.

4. 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 identity theft is your credit report. Request copies from all three major reporting agencies, and look for any accounts you may not recognize.

By law, you’re entitled to at least one free credit report from each agency each year. While plenty of websites and creditors promise free credit reports, the official site to request them is AnnualCreditReport.com.

5. File a report with the Federal Trade Commission.

© WestEnd61/REX Once you have determined the extent of the problem, your next step may be to file a report with the Federal Trade Commission. Peters says this is only necessary if you think your identity has in fact been stolen. For credit card fraud, in which only a single account was compromised, an FTC report isn’t warranted.

To file a report, you can visit the government website FTCComplaintAssistant.gov or call 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338).

6. Contact your local police department.

In addition to filing a report with the federal government, you should also contact your local police department. This step isn’t so much about getting the police to investigate the crime as it is about creating a paper trail to show you were proactively addressing the problem. 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’s stealing information locally.

“It’s important to get on record so you’re protected against other claims,” Peters says. “For full legal protection, file FTC and local police reports.”

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. If you can provide proof to the credit bureaus that you are a victim of identity theft, the fraud alert can be extended up to seven years (although you can remove it at any time by sending a written request).

“Don’t worry about there being some sort of stigma attached to a fraud alert,” Woodley says. “It happens to many people.”

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. While a credit freeze can be a good way to keep others from opening accounts in your name, it may also make it difficult for you to receive approval for loans or credit cards. A freeze is usually free to victims of identity theft, but others may have to pay a fee.

8. Open new credit card and financial accounts.

© Cultura/REX Identity theft victims should talk to their financial institutions to determine how best to avoid further damage. It most cases, that will involve closing and reopening accounts, even ones that haven’t been compromised. It can be a tedious process, but a necessary one to avoid a thief from gaining future control of your money.

9. Implement preventive measures going forward.

Although some cases of identity theft are unavoidable, there are ways to make yourself less likely to be a victim. These include the following:

  • Creating strong passwords and regularly changing them.
  • Shredding documents with personal information when disposing them.
  • Keeping personal information such as your address and phone number off social media sites, as well as any details you use for online security questions like your mother’s maiden name.
  • Not carrying your Social Security card in your wallet.

Bruemmer says clicking unknown links in emails is another way to make yourself an easy target for identity thieves. “The delete button is your best friend,” he says. “Once you click on a link, all sorts of bad things can happen.” Those bad things include inadvertently downloading malware or keylogger software that thieves use to mine your computer for personal information. 

Most of these preventive measures are easy and straightforward. By being diligent and protecting your personal information, you may find you never need these tips at all. 

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