We live much of our lives online: socializing with friends, paying bills, playing games, making purchases. Even our offline lives have digital components, like electronic records at our doctor’s offices and scanned credit card purchases everywhere from big box stores to coffee kiosks. It’s not surprising that with all this digital activity, enterprising identity thieves are increasingly accessing our personal information. Do you know what to do if your identity is stolen?
Of course, in order to take action, you need to know that your identity has been stolen. The best way to do this is to be proactive. Monitor your credit report at least once per year, more often if possible. Keep a regular eye on your bank transactions and balances. Know when to expect bank or financial statements and credit card bills in the mail; if they don’t turn up, someone may have nabbed them to steal your identity. (Not all identity theft is high-tech, after all).
And if you have reached this blog post because someone has already stolen your identity and you’re wondering what to do next, here are some steps you should take right away.
Notify Credit Reporting Bureaus.
Even if you’re not certain your identity has been stolen, you can place a fraud alert with credit reporting bureaus. One situation in which you might do this is if an organization you did business with experienced a data breach. You don’t have to wait to be sure your identity was stolen to take action.
If you notify one of the three national credit reporting bureaus, they are obligated to notify the others. The three bureaus are:
- Experian Experian.com/help 888-EXPERIAN 888-663-7407
- Transunion TransUnion.com/credit-help 888-663-7407
Ask the credit bureau to place a fraud alert on your account. This is free. You are also entitled to a free copy of your credit report. Make sure the agency has your contact information so they can reach you if needed. The fraud alert lasts for one year; mark your calendar so you can renew it if you have to.
If you have an active fraud alert, it is more difficult for thieves to open accounts in your name because the alert requires a business to verify your identity before extending credit.
Contact Your Financial Institutions.
You may be aware that, if your credit card is stolen, federal law limits your liability for each account to $50 if you report the theft within fifty days. For debit cards, you are exposed to greater liability, especially if you don’t become aware of the theft right away. In order to stay on top of things, limit the number of accounts you hold, and check activity regularly. If you discover any unauthorized activity, notify the institution immediately.
Keep records of when and how you contacted the bank, and the names and contact information of anyone with whom you spoke. Follow up in writing and keep a copy of any letters or e-mails you send. Best practices are to send a certified letter (with return receipt requested) summarizing your phone call. If that’s too cumbersome, send an e-mail, but request confirmation of receipt.
Ask each institution for a copy of its “fraud dispute” form. Fill out a form for each bank or financial institution and mail it back. Again, this should be certified mail, return receipt requested.
Close Compromised Accounts and Open New Ones.
Yes, it’s a huge hassle, especially if you have automatic payments coming from credit card or bank accounts that have been compromised. For bank and investment accounts in particular, though, it’s better than risking losing all of the assets in the account.
If you have missing, stolen, or outstanding checks, ask your financial institution to put a “stop payment” on them. Again, this is a pain to have to do, but an important step to take, especially if a thief has stolen physical checks from you.
You should also contact check verification companies and let them know your checks have been stolen. The two major companies are TeleCheck 888-663-7407 and Certegy, Inc. (1-800-437-5120).
Notify Government Agencies.
If you suspect an identity thief might have access to your Social Security Number, notify the Social Security Administration immediately at http://www.socialsecurity.gov. Likewise, if your driver’s license has been stolen, contact your state’s Secretary of State or Department of Motor Vehicles and have a fraud alert placed on your record.
Make a Police Report.
It’s highly unlikely the police in the jurisdiction where the theft happened are going to have the resources to pursue and apprehend the person responsible for your identity theft. Still, financial institutions will want proof that you have filed a police report regarding the theft of your wallet/credit cards/checks/information.
Keep Records of Every Communication.
There’s a reason we’ve been advising you to request receipts for letters you send to agencies and credit bureaus in case you need to prove that you have taken appropriate action in reporting theft or fraud and to avoid liability. Send copies to any organization that requires proof of your actions, but keep originals for your files.
Don’t Pay Debts You Didn’t Incur.
Some merchants may try to hold you liable for a forged check or other fraudulent payment. They may even suggest that if you do not make payment, your credit will be ruined. Do not fall for this. Stand firm and politely but repeatedly refuse to pay for a debt you did not incur. If you do, the likelihood of that payment being refunded to you at some point is next to zero.
If you have had your identity stolen and have concerns about your financial security, we invite you to contact our law office for more information about protecting yourself.
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