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What to do if your identity has been stolen

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The Insurance Information Institute reported that in 2018 alone, 14.4 million people were the victim of identity theft. Altogether, they lost around $1.7 billion. Which, we can all agree, is quite a big chunk of change.

While there’s no way to protect yourself 100 percent from identity theft, there’s plenty you can do to make yourself harder to victimize. Knowing what to do if you think your identity has been stolen, for example, can help you put a stop to your losses as quickly as possible.

What is identity theft?

Identity theft refers to a wide range of crimes that involve someone using your personal information to receive benefits in your name. Here are some examples of identity theft from the Federal Trade Commission:

  • Someone filing for and getting a tax refund in your name
  • Someone opening credit accounts in your name
  • Someone using your existing credit accounts to make purchases

When you’re the victim of identity theft, you can experience numerous negative consequences, such as:

  • Someone gaining access to your accounts and running up debt or taking your money, which can leave you without the assets you need to cover your own needs.
  • Someone opening new accounts in your name, running up debt and never paying for it, which can tank your credit score.
  • Someone using your information to receive benefits, such as a tax refund or health care, which can leave you without those benefits when you attempt to receive them yourself.

Signs your identity has been stolen

It’s not always obvious that your identity has been stolen. Consider these signs of identity theft and whether they apply to you:

  • There’s unexplained activity on your credit card, checking or savings account.
  • You’re denied for services or credit based on your low credit score, but you don’t think there’s any reason you would have a low score.
  • You get statements, collections letters or calls about debt you don’t recognize.
  • You don’t get statements or other mail that you normally expect to receive.
  • Health claims are rejected because your insurance says you’ve already used your benefits, but you haven’t.
  • You get a notification from the IRS that you already filed your tax return, but you didn’t.

Keep an eye out for anything that seems unusual, and be ready to take action if you think any of your accounts are in danger.

What to do if you think your identity has been stolen

If you’re a victim of identity theft, you have rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. That includes being notified if a business or other entity suspects your information might have been compromised. You also have the right to request copies of any information that might have been released about you.

In addition to asserting your rights under the FCRA, it’s a good idea to take a few actions when you believe your identity has been stolen. These are some of the most critical:

1. File a police report

If you‘ve experienced loss due to the identity theft, file a police report. Even if they aren’t able to find and prosecute the identity thief,  police reports are important documentation. Banks or creditors might require them if you ask for assistance, and businesses can be required to provide relevant records to the police.

The police or your financial institution may also ask you to fill out and notarize an Affidavit of Forgery. This is a statement affirming under oath that you believe you are the victim of fraud or identity theft. Even if not required, you should search for a template online (which are available for free), download, fill it out, and get it notarized so that you have it on hand if you need to contest a debt. 

Some institutions will require it before processing any refund or beginning an investigation, but it is always best to fill out a document like this as close to the incident as possible so you have a good recollection of the incident. Your financial institution may require you also to fill out their own form as well.

2. File a report with the FTC

The Federal Trade Commission provides a reporting service through IdentityTheft.gov, and you can create an account and report the identity theft there. The FTC provides a step-by-step recovery plan to help you address the identity theft.

3. Inform credit bureaus and other companies

Send credit dispute letters to the credit bureaus explaining how you were a victim of identity theft and ask the bureaus to remove any inaccurate information on your credit history related to the issue. Make sure you also inform your lenders and financial institutions. They may be able to provide some support in monitoring or safeguarding your other assets.

4. Close old accounts and open new ones

Another option is to close the jeopardized  account and open a new one. Once an identity thief has your information, they may be able to get into your account and continue stealing from you. Closing your account may impact your credit mix and age and have a negative impact on your overall score.

So, before your close your account, make sure you reach out to your credit card company, bank or lender to find out how you can switch to a new account.

How to better protect your identity in the future

In addition to addressing your current situation, you might want to take action to protect yourself in the future. Sadly, once your identity has been stolen, it might be more likely to happen again. For example, your information might now be floating around for sale on the dark web—we know it sounds like a fake movie thing, but unfortunately, it’s real.

Here are some things you might consider doing to protect your identity in the future:

  • Freeze your credit. If you ask, the credit bureaus will freeze your credit report, which means no one can access the information for the purpose of a credit application. Even if someone tries to get credit in your name, they likely won’t be able to. The downside is, you won’t be able to either without unfreezing your credit beforehand.
  • Request fraud alerts. Sign up for a credit monitoring service, or leverage fraud alert perks on your credit card accounts. These services can send you a text or another communication when potentially fraudulent activity is noticed so you can act quickly.
  • Check your credit report regularly. Pull your free credit report or use a credit monitoring service to check it regularly. If you see anything unexpected, you can investigate in a timely manner to help mitigate potential losses.
  • Guard against scams. Don’t give out your personal information to random callers, and investigate information before you agree to make payments or donate to charities.
  • Change your passwords regularly. Change all your digital passwords at least once every 90 days.
  • Protect your sensitive information. Don’t give out your Social Security number, account information or passwords to anyone unless absolutely necessary—and that includes friends and family members.

Can you recover from identity theft?

Yes, you can recover from identity theft. In some cases, it can take a long time and be a complicated process. But it’s important to start working as soon as possible to cope with identity theft and move on to a brighter financial future.

Posted in Security
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