Has an identity theft struck one of your accounts? Try not to panic! But it is important to act fast to minimize the damage. Here’s what you need to do to get your credit and your finances back on track.
Place a fraud alert on each of your credit reports. Phone one of the three, national credit reporting companies, Equifax (1-888-766-0008), Experian (1-888-397-3742), or TransUnion (1-800-680-7289), let them know that you’ve been a victim of identity theft, and request that a fraud alert be placed on your credit report.
The company that you contact will reach out to the other national credit reporting companies so one phone call is all you need to place a fraud alert on all three of your credit reports.
Prefer to email your fraud complaints? You also can place a fraud alert online through any of the credit reporting companies’ websites. A fraud alert is free and stays on your credit report for at least 90 days. And you can renew a fraud alert after 90 days if you need more time to straighten things out and clean up your credit after a thief’s tampering.
Let’s hope things are straightened out in a matter of months. But if not, an extended fraud alert is available. With an extended fraud alert, you receive two free credit reports within 12 months from each national credit reporting company. An extended fraud alert lasts for seven years.
Look for More Signs of Fraud and ID Theft
Once you place a fraud alert on your credit report, this allows you to order one free copy of your credit report from each national credit reporting company. Review each credit report for bogus accounts. How much damage did an identity thief do? Is there one account you don’t recognize, or two or three? Study each copy of your credit report carefully so you don’t miss anything that shouldn’t be there and could potentially impact your credit. You can file credit report disputes online.
Contact the fraud department of affected financial institutions. If a scammer has tampered with one of your bank or credit accounts, you’ll also need to contact the fraud department of the bank or credit card company directly. And you’ll need to follow up that phone call with a letter that you’ll want to send certified mail, asking for a return receipt so you’ll know when a financial institution received it. Be sure to close any account that you suspect an identity thief has tampered with.
File an identity theft complaint with the FTC. Create an identity theft affidavit and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. An identity theft victim’s affidavit is a voluntary form that you’ll be able to use when communicating with credit reporting agencies, creditors and others about an identity thief’s actions. It helps to prove that you are a victim of a crime. This can come in handy later on if there are residual affects from the ID theft that lead to illegitimate debt collection activity.
Report the crime to your local police department. Take your FTC identity theft affidavit with you when filing a report with your local police about the identity theft. Request a copy of the police report or the report number to keep for your records.
You’ll need to keep lots of paper records so get a folder or two and stay organized until your credit and good name is clear. Keep copies of your identity theft affidavit, your police report and each and every correspondence with a credit card issuer, bank or credit reporting agency.
To protect your good name and keep it protected, you’ll want a paper trail. And you’ll want to keep good track of your phone calls as well, keep a written log of the people you spoke to, the date and time of the call and what was said.
Not sure what to write in a letter? You can find sample letters at IdentityTheft.gov. It is also a good idea to send all your letters certified mail.
Get to work cleaning up your credit file. You’ll need to prove to banks and other financial institutions that you are an identity theft victim and you are not responsible for the thief’s actions and their impact on your credit and bank accounts.
Use the identity theft affidavit you filed with the FTC and the police report that filed with local law enforcement when requesting fraudulent information be removed from your credit reports. These also are good resources to have if a disputed account has fallen to collection and debt collectors are contacting you for payment.
How to Minimize Your Chance of Becoming a Victim of Identity Theft
We cannot prevent every method a thief may take to steal our identity, but fortune favors the prepared. Take these steps to lower your risks.
- Each month, review all your credit and other accounts regularly to check for fraud. The sooner you can spot a thief in one of your accounts the quicker you can stop the damage.
- Buy a cross-shred shredder and shred all financial documents before discarding. A Social Security number, or a bank or credit card number and your mailing address is all a thief needs to get started.
- Go paperless with banking and credit card statements. But be diligent online as well. Change your financial passwords. Protect your email, by updating those passwords as well. Don’t forget to keep your virus and spyware software up-to-date.
- Don’t fall for scams. A legitimate bank or credit card company that you do business with will not contact you and request your private financial information. They already have it. But the scammer you are communicating with doesn’t. Ignore requests for private account data and forward the emails to the fraud departments at the financial institution the crooks say they are representing. You also can report fraud to your state attorney general’s office and the FTC.
- Review your credit report to look for bogus accounts under your name. Visit annualcreditreport.com, and get a free copy of your credit report from each of three major credit reporting agencies, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion each year. You can even stagger your requests so you’ll check one copy of your report every four months, lowering your chances that a thief will open an account without you knowing it.
If you have concerns about your identity having been stolen, or questions about prevention, post in the comments below for feedback.