Sadly, instances of identity theft are on the rise. In 2021, government agencies in the United States received over 1,400,000 reports of identity theft. Of these, government documents or benefits fraud, along with credit card fraud, were the most common complaints.
If you’ve fallen victim to identity theft, here are 10 steps you can take to recover your personal information, minimize the impact of any attempted fraud, and protect your identity.
1. Immediately Contact the Companies Involved
If you know how or where your personal information was obtained, contact the relevant organization to advise them of the incident. Most financial institutions have a dedicated fraud department that can assist you with the necessary steps, such as canceling a credit card or putting a block on a bank account.
Time is of the essence. Under federal law, you’re not responsible for any unauthorized charges made on your credit card after you’ve reported it lost or stolen (your liability is otherwise limited to $50).
Similarly, immediately reporting a lost or stolen card to your bank or credit union can help limit your liability for any unauthorized use of it. If you take more than 2 business days to do so, you may be liable for any fraudulent charges.
2. Make a Report to the Federal Trade Commission
If you’re in the US, you can report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) via its dedicated online platform or by phone at 877-438-4338. You can report any type of identity theft incident to the FTC, including incidents involving your tax identity, medical identity, and social security number.
By making a report to the FTC, you’ll receive an Identify Theft Report. This is a useful document to have when dealing with other agencies or organizations and resolving any unauthorized transactions in your name. The site also provides you with a step-by-step recovery plan and useful resources, including template letters you can use when dealing with creditors.
3. Contact the Credit Bureaus
Next, contact the 3 credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—to notify them of the identity theft. You can ask the bureaus to do 3 things—put a fraud alert on your credit report, freeze your credit report, and send you a copy of your credit report.
The bureaus can put a 1-year fraud alert on your credit report. This requires creditors to take steps to verify any credit application made in your name. If you provide a copy of your FTC Identity Theft Report, you can request an extended 7-year fraud alert. When you request a fraud alert, you’ll get access to a free copy of your credit report from each bureau.
For stronger protection, you can also ask the bureaus to put a freeze on your credit report. Creditors can then only access your account when you unfreeze it specifically for them. This prevents someone who has your personal information from opening an unauthorized account in your name. There’s no limit as to how long you can freeze your credit report.
It’s free to put a fraud alert or freeze on your credit report. For an added layer of protection, the credit bureaus also offer a fee-based credit monitoring service to notify you of any attempts to access your credit report.
4. Check Your Credit Report
Once you have a copy of your credit report, go through it in detail to identify any unauthorized activity and inquiries, or accounts opened in your name. Also confirm there are no changes to the personal details attached to the report, such as your address and social security number.
If any fraudulent activity appears in your credit report, you can ask the credit bureaus to remove it to prevent it from affecting your credit score. It’s useful to have a copy of your FTC Identity Theft Report for this process, as well as any other supporting evidence of the identity fraud.
Once someone has your personal details, they may continue to use them in the future. So it’s worth continuing to monitor your credit report for any fraudulent activity. If you notice something that shouldn’t be there, notify the bureaus immediately.
5. File a Police Report
Identity theft and fraud are criminal offenses. If your identity has been stolen, you can report it to the police. Some police departments have dedicated fraud or identify theft teams to investigate these types of complaints.
To make a police report, provide them with a copy of your FTC Identity Theft Report and any supporting evidence, such as transaction statements or correspondence with your bank. Keep a copy of the police report for your records. It may be useful when dealing with other agencies or organizations.
Even if the police can’t solve your case, the information you provide may assist their investigation and prosecution of identity theft more broadly.
6. Review Your Accounts
In addition to your credit report, carefully check the accounts you hold with any other financial institutions, including your bank or credit union. If you notice any fraudulent entries on your statements, contact the relevant fraud department and request it remove them.
Again, this is where a copy of your FTC Identity Theft Report and/or police report are useful to show you’ve been the victim of identity theft.
You may also want to speak with your bank or credit union about putting a hold on your account, changing the account number or PIN, canceling any cards associated with the account, or even closing your account completely.
7. Notify Other Creditors
If someone has your personal information, they may attempt to use it in different ways with a range of organizations you hold accounts with. To limit the risk of this, contact creditors, such as utility companies, or any other companies that hold your personal information, such as the post office.
These organizations may be able to place a flag on your account and notify you in the event anyone attempts to use your personal information to open an account or access your information.
Contacting other creditors at an early stage may also limit your liability for any later unauthorized activity in your name. You can show that you took steps to address the issue.
8. Reset Your Passwords
If you’ve fallen victim to identity theft, especially as a result of a data breach, it’s a good time to change your passwords. Even if the breach doesn’t directly involve your online banking or financial accounts, it’s good practice to update these logins as well. Otherwise, someone who has your personal information may try to access these accounts and block you from them by creating new passwords.
Make sure your new passwords are strong by making them complex and long. This is where a password manager comes in handy to generate strong passwords for your accounts and securely store them.
9. Keep Track of the Steps You Take
As you go through these steps, make a note of the organizations you’ve contacted, who you spoke with, and what was done. Always ask for written confirmation of any action taken by an organization, such as removing fraudulent charges from your account. Keep a copy of any written correspondence or reports for your records.
Once someone steals your personal information, they potentially have it forever. In the event they later use your details, you’ll have evidence you can provide to the relevant organizations to show the transaction was fraudulent and distance your liability for it.
10. Consider Identity Theft Protection
Even if you’ve already been a victim of identity theft, it’s not too late to protect yourself against future incidents. An identity theft protection service can monitor your accounts, credit reports, and devices to notify you of any attempts to use your identity. Some services also include identity theft insurance to help you recover any losses.
There’s a range of options available to suit your budget and personal security needs – from the full-spectrum protection offered by Identity Guard through to comprehensive restoration services such as those from IDShield. These services allow you to respond quickly to any attempts to use your identity and protect your personal information.
Protect Yourself Against Identity Theft
While having your identity stolen can leave you feeling vulnerable, there are steps you can take to limit the damage and reduce the risk of it happening again. Immediately contacting the organizations involved and the credit bureaus is a good starting point. Beyond that, you can report the incident to the FTC and police.
Looking ahead, you may also want to consider taking out identity theft protection to monitor your accounts for any signs of fraudulent activity. By taking these steps, you can try to stay ahead of anyone who tries to fraudulently use your personal information and protect your identity.