Identity theft is a problem that none of us can afford to ignore any longer. Consider that identity theft currently affects around 60 million Americans, according to a Harris Poll survey. And there was a 126% increase in exposed consumer data between 2017 and 2018, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.
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Identity theft can happen to anyone
The summer vacation season can be an especially vulnerable time. That’s because identity theft risk grows the more you use credit cards, public Wi-Fi, and social media location tagging.
However it occurs, identity theft can threaten your financial well-being and ruin your credit. It can happen to anyone, but particularly those who need to take better precautions.
If you’ve experienced identity theft, know that you’re not alone and you’re not helpless. It’s important to take action immediately. You need to move fast to report the fraud, repair credit problems, fix credit report errors, and monitor your private financial information closely.
Learn if you’re a victim
How do you know if you’ve suffered identity theft? A bank, company or other organization may contact you about a data breach, questionable transaction, or other problem they’ve identified. But you may have to figure out for yourself that you’ve been victimized. Red flags include:
- You notice unrecognizable charges or accounts on your credit report. Remember that it’s important to check your credit report at least annually for problems like this. You can access your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) for free once a year at annualcreditreport.com.
- Merchants decline your checks.
- You spot bank account withdrawals you can’t explain.
- Your bills or other financial mail hasn’t arrived.
- Companies or debt collectors contact you about charges or debts that aren’t yours.
- The IRS informs you that more than one tax return was filed in your name.
Review your credit reports
Next, take the time necessary to access and review your free annual credit reports — one for each of the three credit bureaus. Scrutinize each report very carefully. Make detailed note of any purchase, account or information you aren’t responsible for.
Create a fraud alert
A fraud alert can prevent an identity thief from opening new accounts using your information. With a fraud alert marked on your credit report, a business must validate your identity prior to issuing new credit under your name.
The good news is, it’s free to place a fraud alert with one of the three credit bureaus — another highly recommended step. You only need to request this once; the credit bureau you contact will alert the other two. Once the fraud alert is in place, each credit bureau will send you a confirmation letter. Here’s the contact information:
- Equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services; 800-685-1111
- TransUnion.com/credit-help; 888-909-8872
- Experian.com/help; 888-EXPERIAN (888-397-3742)
Report suspected identity theft
If you believe you’re the victim of identity theft, it’s time to contact:
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at IdentityTheft.gov or 877-438-4338. The FTC will help you create an Identity Theft Report and recovery plan. This report can serve as proof to businesses that your identity was stolen.
- The IRS at 800-908-4490 (if you suspect that your Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number has been compromised). Find out if you are eligible for an IRS IP PIN (a 6-digit number assigned to eligible taxpayers to help prevent the misuse of their Social Security number on fraudulent federal income tax returns). And ask if you qualify for a new tax ID number.
- Your local police department (if you know the thief or the thief used your identity in a matter involving the police).
Suspect a fraudulent charge, the opening of a bogus account in your name, or an identity breach at a certain store or a company you have an account with? Call that business’ fraud department. Inform them that you have an FTC Identity Theft Report.
Request that they close any fraudulent account and eliminate unauthorized charges from those accounts, too. For compromised accounts you created, request that they freeze or close your account. This will prevent any new charge from being incurred unless you give permission. Be sure to change passwords, logins and PIN numbers linked to your accounts, as well.
Also ask that they mail you a letter verifying that the bad account is not yours or your responsibility. Make sure that they confirm its deletion from your credit report. This letter can come in handy if the bogus account shows up later on your credit report.
Fix your credit reports
You have rights. One of your rights is to remove fraudulent information from your credit report. So contact the three credit bureaus again. Tell them you have an FTC Identity Theft Report.
Notify them about any information on your credit reports that were affected by identity theft (if you choose to mail a letter, model from this sample letter). Request that they block those details from your credit report. Once blocked, these details won’t be shown on your credit reports and you’ll be safe from debt collectors of fraudulent charges.