What do I do if my identity is stolen?

Written by Brand Point
Published February 7, 2019
what to do if your identity has been stolen what to do if your identity has been stolen

Identity theft is often talked about as an abstract thing that only happens in the dark corners of the internet. Unfortunately, the impact is all too real. Some estimates suggest as many as 16 million people have their identity stolen each year. If you're one of those 16 million, the effects can be devastating to your finances and create problems for years down the road. Although each case is unique, here are some things you can do to respond to identity theft and remedy the situation as quickly as possible.

How do I tell if my identity has been stolen?

This question is difficult to answer because it will depend on what information thieves were able to access and what they were able to do with that information. The short answer is that you'll notice something is wrong with your finances. It could mean receiving a notification about a loan application you never submitted, finding fraudulent charges on your credit card bill, or your bank could notify you of suspicious activity. It could also mean changes to your insurance information, or new claims appearing on your records for medical treatments you never received.

To make sure you catch identity theft as soon as possible, keep a close eye on all your credit cards bills and bank statements. Any activity you don't recognize is a big red flag for identity theft. You should also check your credit report regularly. Any major changes in your credit score could be a sign that someone is using your information illegally.

Sometimes identity theft can be happening for a long time before you realize it. This is especially true of children who have their identity stolen and don't notice until years later when they apply for loans. However, if you're being mindful of your accounts and checking things regularly, you should hopefully be able to spot identity theft as soon as red flags appear.

What do I do if my identity is stolen?

If your identity has been stolen, you need to act right away. The exact steps you'll need to take will depend on what the thieves did with your information. Here are the most important things you should do immediately after you notice your identity has been stolen:

Lock down your accounts

If someone is making fraudulent charges on your credit cards, debit cards, or finding some other way to spend your hard-earned money, you need to stop it right away. Contact your bank or credit card company and ask to either freeze or close the account. You'll need to open new accounts, but your old ones have been compromised anyway, so it's a move you'll want to make.

In some cases, stopping fraudulent activity isn't as easy as freezing your accounts. If someone used your information to apply for a loan, for example, it might be harder to shut off their access. The point is you should try to identify what information they have and stop the damage before things get any worse.

Contact the credit reporting agencies

The three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion) are the ones responsible for tracking your credit history, so they need to know you've been victimized to set your credit report straight. Ask them to put a fraud alert on your file to make it harder for thieves to open new accounts or do anything else that might hurt your finances. You can also request a credit freeze, which will also make it harder for thieves to open new accounts. Any agency you contact is required to notify the other two. If you want things to move a little faster, consider contacting all three yourself.

Contact all your financial institutions

Your first call should be to the source of the problem, but you should also reach out to the other companies you work with as well. This includes banks, lenders, insurance, and credit card companies. Notifying your other financial institutions can not only help you determine if thieves stole other information or accessed any of your other accounts, but it can also help start the process of fixing any credit problems that happened because of the theft.

Ask your financial institutions to put fraud alerts on all of your accounts. Just because an account seems fine now doesn't mean thieves don't already have access to it. If you cut off their access by freezing one account, they could move on to your others. Monitoring and alert systems can help stop new issues before they get too far.

File a report with the Federal Trade Commission

They are the government agency tasked with helping victims of identity theft set things right. Filing a report with the FTC is important because you'll need it to prove the identity theft to other businesses. The FTC can also provide additional resources to help in your recovery efforts. To file your report, go to www.identitytheft.gov or click here for more resources from the FTC.

File a police report

Your local police department might not be able to truly investigate the crime due to lack of resources or limitations on their jurisdiction, but this is about creating a paper trail more than anything. You want it documented that you notified the proper authorities in a reasonable amount of time. In some cases, the police can help more than you'd think. If someone stole your identity by taking mail out of your mailbox, police might be able to catch the person and prevent identity theft from happening to your neighbors.

Again, you may need to take additional steps to respond to identity theft apart from the ones listed here. The important thing is to try to figure out exactly what was stolen, how they did it (if possible), and act quickly to stop any further illegal activity.

How do I prevent this from happening again?

To protect yourself from identity theft going forward, take a few simple steps:

  • Set up credit monitoring and fraud alerts through your bank or a third-party service to catch identity theft if it happens.
  • Change your passwords for any online accounts that may have been impacted, and never use the same password for multiple accounts.
  • Only use secure sites and Wi-Fi networks, particularly when shopping online or transmitting sensitive information.
  • Bring in your mail as soon as you get home to limit the chance of mailbox theft. Alternatively, skip mail altogether and set up paperless notifications, so your financial institutions only contact you via email or their websites.

These are just a few of the ways to limit your risk of identity theft.

Identity theft can happen to anyone

When it comes to identity theft, thieves aren't picky. They'll target anyone, regardless of income, age, location, or credit history. If your identity gets stolen, there's no need to feel ashamed. You will need to move quickly. Take all the necessary steps to remedy the situation, no matter how long or frustrating the process may be and take precautions to protect yourself in the future. By following these steps, you can limit your risk and get your life back on track.