According to The Motley Fool, there were more than half a million cases of identity theft in 2019, making it the worst year for identity theft yet. Regardless of whether you’re a current victim of identity theft or suspect that you may have had your identity stolen in the past, it’s vital that you know the answer to “what to do if identity has been stolen?” By acting quickly, you can significantly limit the damage that having your identity stolen can cause.
Identity theft happens when someone wrongfully obtains your personal information (i.e., your birth date, residential address, or social security number) and uses it without your permission. Most criminals steal people’s identity for financial gain. But an identity thief can do much more than go on a shopping spree with your credit card. They may use your personal information to get healthcare, earn and collect wages, or hide their true identity when committing crimes. It could be months, if not years, before you realize that a malicious actor has stolen your identity.
Keep on reading to learn how to know if someone is using your personal information maliciously, what to do when someone steals your identity, and how to avoid falling prey to this type of crime in the future.
How Do You Know If Your Identity Has Been Stolen?
You not realize that you’ve fallen victim to identity theft immediately. However, if you’re denied credit for no apparent reason, notice strange withdrawals from your account, or receive notice from your health insurance stating that you’ve reached your benefits limit, it’s highly likely that your identity has been stolen.
Other signs that someone might be using your identity include:
- Missing bills and other mail or receiving bills for services and goods you didn’t buy.
- Denied checks.
- Calls or letters from debt collectors about debts that you know nothing about.
- Unfamiliar charges on your credit report.
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rejecting your tax return.
- Lost cell phone service (this could indicate that your service was transferred to a new device).
- Email or text authentication messages for new accounts you didn’t set up.
- Problems with your online accounts, like inexplicable reset password emails.
- A Social Security Statement that shows more income than you’ve earned.
- A notification that your personally identifiable information was compromised in a data breach.
What Do You Do When Your Someone Steals Your Identity?
If someone steals your identity, place a fraud alert, look at your credit reports, and report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Then, contact law enforcement and notify the relevant financial institutions and the appropriate state and federal agencies. Last but not least, change all your passwords.
1. Place a fraud alert
One of the first things you should do when you fall victim to identity theft is to add an extra layer of protection to your credit reports. You can do that by contacting one of the three major credit reporting companies and asking them to place a one-year fraud alert on your credit profile.
Once you place an alert with one agency, it should automatically notify the other two to do the same.
With a fraud alert, you don’t need to worry about someone applying for a loan or a new credit card in your name. That’s because a fraud alert requires a business to verify the applicant’s identity before extending credit.
A fraud alert is free and you can renew it every year, even if you’re not a victim of identity theft. You can also apply for an extended fraud alert that lasts up to seven years.
Alternatively, you can place a credit freeze on your credit report. A freeze stops anyone from seeing your credit file (except for existing creditors). This makes it harder for identity thieves to open a new account under your name.
To place a credit freeze, you’ll need to contact each credit bureau individually. If you move house or job or want to open a new account in the future, you can request a temporary “thaw.”
2. Comb through your credit report
When you place a fraud alert, you can automatically get a free credit report from each of the three agencies. Check the reports carefully for any fraudulent items so that you can start managing any financial damage done. Now’s also a good time to go over your bank account and credit card statements.
3. Notify the appropriate financial institutions and companies
If you notice any new accounts opened in your name, call the fraud departments of all the financial institutions and companies you’re with and tell them that your identity has been stolen. They’ll let you know the next steps you should take. For example, depending on the severity of the situation, they may suggest freezing or even closing your accounts and opening new ones.
Even if you don’t observe any unusual activity, it’s still a good idea to let your bank know that you’ve fallen victim to identity theft.
Most credit card companies have zero-liability policies, which protect the cardholder against unauthorized charges. In any case, the Fair Credit Billing Act limits your liability to a maximum of $50.
However, ATM and debit cardholders aren’t as well protected — their liability is limited to $50 only if they report unauthorized withdrawals in two days or less. If it takes you more than 2 days, but less than 60 days, to report a stolen debit card, your liability goes up to $500. After 60 days, you could be responsible for all the fraudulent charges incurred.
Don’t forget to let the credit bureau know that you’re not responsible for opening fraudulent accounts and ask them to block any information they have on you that is the result of identity theft.
4. Report the theft to the FTC
Report the crime to the FTC Identity Theft Bureau by filling out the Identity Theft Report or calling 1-877-438-4338.
When you fill out the report, the FTC will create a personalized recovery plan for you. And, if you create an account with them, they’ll even walk you through each step within the plan, update it as needed, and help you fill out forms.
5. Contact law enforcement
Your local police might not have the necessary resources to help you find the person who stole your identity (unless you know the identity thief or possess information that could aid the police with the investigation). However, you should still report the crime to the local authorities (the FTC has a memo you can share with local enforcement).
A police report can prove that you were a victim of identity theft (some creditors might insist that you produce a police report). Moreover, a police report can come in handy if the thief uses your personal information to commit another crime (for example, if the thief uses your identity during a traffic stop).
Gather all the information you have about the theft (specific dates, new accounts, transactions, etc.) and bring:
- A copy of the FTC Identity Theft Report
- A government-issued ID with a photo
- Proof of address (like a utility bill).
Before you leave the station, ask for a copy of the report filed as you may need it later.
6. Report the crime to state and federal agencies
Depending on the type of fraud, you may also need to contact:
- U.S. Social Security Administration (for social security number fraud).
- Your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (for driver’s license fraud).
- The Internal Revenue Service (for tax fraud)
- U.S. Department of State (for passport fraud)
- U.S. Postal Inspection Service (for mail theft)
- Your medical care providers (for medical theft)
USA.gov has a comprehensive guide on how you should go about replacing your vital records, like your social security card or passport.
7. Change your passwords
If you think that your accounts might have been compromised, now is the time to change your login details, including your passwords and PINs.
Don’t use identifying information like your name or date of birth and refrain from using the same password more than once (a password manager like Blur can help you keep track of all your passwords).
Who & Where to Report Identity Theft?
You should report identity theft to the FTC. The FTC has many helpful resources for identity theft victims, including information on your rights and sample letters. In addition, you should also contact the police, your financial institutions, government agencies like the IRS, and the three credit bureaus.
How to Avoid Identity Theft In the Future
To prevent identity theft in the future, monitor your credit frequently, change your passwords often, and don’t click on any suspicious links. Perhaps most importantly, never share your sensitive data over a public network and opt-out of all major data brokers and people search sites.
Data brokers are notorious for storing and selling your data — including your address, phone number, and in some cases, even your social security number — to pretty much anyone willing to pay for it. For example, in 2014, the data broker LeapLab sold sensitive data about consumers to a company that used the information to steal money from their bank accounts.
Don’t think that you can sue data brokers for trading in your sensitive data, either. Their business model is perfectly legal, mostly because the vast majority of their information comes from public records.
Luckily, you can opt-out of these sites today with our step-by-step guide. But remember: data brokers tend to relist your information almost as soon as you opt-out of their systems, so you’ll have to check their databases periodically.
Alternatively, you can subscribe to a service that will do that for you. For just $10.75 a month, DeleteMe will remove your name and other sensitive data from some of the most popular data brokers and people search sites.
Other things you can do protect yourself against identity theft include:
- Shred all documents that contain your personal information to stop “dumpster divers” from getting their hands on your data.
- Keep your Social Security card somewhere safe (i.e., not in your wallet).
- Collect your mail every day (or put a lock on your mailbox) and place a hold on your mail if you’re going away.
- Opt-in to paperless billing.
- Use a virtual private network (VPN) when using public wifi.
- Keep an eye out for unauthorized transactions.
- Never respond to unsolicited requests for data.
- Give those Facebook quizzes and questionnaires a miss (they can be a treasure trove of information for identity thieves).
- Change your passwords if a company you’re doing business with experiences a data breach.
Don’t Be a Victim
Just because you’ve fallen prey to identity theft once doesn’t mean that it can’t or won’t happen again. Data brokers sell your information indiscriminately, which makes it incredibly easy for criminals to impersonate you. They don’t even have to go to the trouble of stealing your wallet or sorting through your trash to find bills anymore. All they have to do is Google your name.
The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to protect yourself against identity theft, including opting out of data brokers and people search sites. Remember to check out our guide on how you can remove your profile from data broker databases or subscribe to DeleteMe if you’d rather let the professionals do all the hard work for you.