Identity theft can happen to anyone, and it happens to millions of people every year. In 2014, there were 17.6 million U.S. residents whose identities were stolen, and that’s just the most recent data we have. The number is surely higher now.
Someone can steal your identity using a range of information, usually related to your financial accounts. Swiping a credit card or bank account number is a common way to steal someone’s identity, but you can also be exposed if your social security number, your driver license information, or certain online logins and passwords are compromised.
Data breaches are becoming more common as well, and while there’s nothing you can do to protect your data in those situations, you can still take steps to keep yourself as protected as possible.
These days there are a few tools that can notify you if your identity has been stolen. Most if not all credit card agencies will flag your account and give you a call if they see any suspicious activity on your card. (For that reason, it’s important to let your credit card companies know when you’re going to be traveling and using your card in new locations, or when you’re about to make a major purchase.)
Credit report monitoring is another way you can keep an eye on your identity. If you’re familiar with what’s on your credit report, and suddenly you check and there are new accounts that you didn’t open, that’s a big clue that your identity has been stolen.
There are also those who find out much later. If someone takes out a loan in your name and then defaults, you might not be clued in until you have collection agencies calling you day and night. Or you may apply for a loan or new credit card and be turned down for “poor credit history” when you know your credit history is excellent. The next thing to do in any situation like this is to get a copy of your credit report and see what’s going on.
Once you’ve realized your identity is stolen, there are a few things you need to do immediately to prevent the damage from getting any worse.
First, call any and all companies involved in the fraud. You want to alert them and also get anything shut down that could negatively affect you. The first step is to call your bank(s) and credit card companies and let them know your identity may be compromised. They’ll freeze or lock down your accounts until you get more information.
Second, get a credit freeze or fraud alert put on your credit report. A credit freeze will make it slightly more difficult the next time you want to apply for a new account, but it will also prevent anyone else from opening accounts in your name. While you’re doing this, go ahead and get a new copy of your credit report if you don’t have one already.
Third, report the theft to your local police department. Identity theft is a crime just like any other kind of theft, and it should be reported as one.
Fourth, report your identity theft to the FTC. Note: you can also file a report with the FTC if someone is falsely claiming to be someone they aren’t (like a government agent harassing you for money). If you prefer to file over the phone and speak with someone, you can call 1-877-ID-THEFT (1-877-438-4338).
If any of your financial accounts are compromised, they’ll be frozen or shut down. One thing you should do immediately is update or cancel any automatic drafts to and from those accounts.
Once you have a copy of your credit report and can see any fraudulent activity, you need to go to each company or institution that was affected and work with them on getting the bogus transactions removed from your account, shutting down any profiles that aren’t yours, and learning what the appropriate next steps are.
This may involve calling a company where the identity thief spent money using your information, changed or set up a new account or profile (like taking out a credit card or loan in your name, or hacking into your bank account and changing your username and password), and even possibly the IRS if there was an attempt to get a tax refund in your name.
Ultimately you’ll probably need to open new accounts. It’s never fun to start from scratch, but your financial institutions will work with you to make the transition as easy as possible.
While there’s no bulletproof method for shielding yourself from identity theft, there are a few ways to keep your information secure:
- Shred any documents with personal information on them.
- Use strong passwords and change them regularly.
- Keep personal details off social media, especially the types of things you’d use for online security questions.
Stay on top of your credit reports. Monthly monitoring is available through credit cards and programs like Credit Sesame.
You should also monitor your bank accounts and credit card statements closely. The sooner you can spot something out of the ordinary, the better positioned you’ll be if and when an identity theft happens.
There are also online programs you can hire to monitor your accounts, which can be great if you know you won’t keep up with regular reviews, or you simply prefer to let someone else do the thinking while you go about your life. While these programs might not prevent identity theft from happening, they’ll help you catch on much more quickly and they’ll provide resources and assistance in the event of stolen identity. It’s a peace-of-mind layer of protection that many consumers find valuable.