7 Steps to follow if you are the victim of identity theft

A June Consumer Reports article reported that 16 million households in the US experienced some form of identity theft last year. There are about 115 million households in the US so that means about 1 in 7. That number is up over 50% in the last year. Of those 16 million identity thefts, 7.4 million were unauthorized use of a credit card.

Identity theft as defined by the FTC occurs when someone uses your personally identifying information, like your name, Social Security number, or credit card number, without your permission, to commit fraud or other crimes.  Identity theft is a real problem and growing worse each year. It is also a scary thing to think that someone is using your identity to make purchases. If not dealt with properly identity theft can harm your credit  and do serious damage to your finances.

The first thing that you need to remember is these are fraudulent charges. You are not responsible for them. It’s the same as if thief broke into your house and stole your checkbook and then wrote a bunch of checks and forged your name on them.

Be aware that you might have some difficulty with  certain creditors convincing them that you really didn’t make the charges. To be fair I’m sure it isn’t uncommon that some unscrupulous customers would go charge some items on a credit card and then claim their identity had been stolen to try to avoid paying. However, remember you are not the criminal. The person who stole your identity is the crook. If you get any push back from your creditor be prepared to stand firm.

So what do you do if you have reason to believe you have been the victim of identity theft?

Step 1 – Call your creditors

As quickly as possible you need to call all of the banks or any other creditors where you have accounts that you think may have been compromised. If you find out a new account has been opened in your name then call that bank to let them know you did not open the account.

It is very important to do this as soon as possible to limit your liability. The truth in lending act limits your liability on any fraudulent credit card charges to a maximum of $50. This only applies though if you contact your creditor within 60 days of when the charges first appear on your bill.

This is another place that legacy drawer will come in handy since it should contain the contact information for all of your accounts.

Step 2 – Place a fraud alert on your credit

You will need to contact one of the 3 companies that maintain your credit report and ask for a fraud victim alert to be placed on your report. Whichever one you contact is supposed to contact the other two in your name. If you don’t receive any confirmation from the other two you may need to follow-up with them individually.  This will help protect you from the criminal opening further accounts in your name. It’s not a guarantee since not all creditors are as diligent as they should be in checking your credit report before issuing credit in your name.

Step 3 – Review your credit report

You need to get a copy of your credit report from all three of the credit bureaus as soon as possible. Look for any accounts that you know you did not open or any other information that seems inaccurate.

You can get a free copy of your credit report from annualcreditreport.com. If you have used this service within the last 12 months, you are still entitled to a free copy of your report by contacting each of the credit bureaus listed above as long as you have requested to have a fraud victim alert placed on your account.

Step 4 – Call the Social Security Administration

If you believe someone has stolen your social security number, Contact Social Security fraud victim division. 1-800-269-0271. In extreme cases you may even be able to be given a new number. Be aware though that this may end up causing you more problems in the end.

Step 5 – Close any accounts that have been compromised

If you find accounts on your credit report that you know you did not setup, as soon as possible you will need to contact the fraud victim division of that company and ask to have those accounts closed. In addition, you will need to do the same for any accounts that you know are yours but have charges on them that you did not make. At minimum, you will need to request that the creditor re-issue your card with a new number and make sure you change any associated passwords or pin numbers.

Step 6 – File a complaint with the FTC

You can do this through an online form or by calling 1-877-IDTHEFT. The FTC keeps databases on identity theft. Filing a complaint may not help you but it might help them eventually nab the criminal and prevent them from taking advantage of someone else.

Step 7 – File a police report

You should file a police report. Include a printed copy of the complaint you filed with the FTC. Be aware that if you know who it is that stole your identity, you will need to provide that information to the police. One of the sad truths of identity theft is a large number of these acts are committed by either relatives or friends of the victim. There are 4 reasons though why you need to File the plice report.

  1. With the report you can permanently block the fraudulent information from appearing on your police report.
  2. You can make sure these fraudulent debts do not re-appear on your report
  3. You can have legal standing to prevent creditors from trying to collect on these debts.
  4. You can extend the time  that fraud victim alert remains on your credit report.

Where to go to find more information

The Federal Trade Commission has a very helpful web site for learning more about identity theft and what to do if you think you’re a victim. You can find that information at:


Identity theft has become a sad reality in our 21st century life. Chances are many of us will have to deal with this at some point and studies have shown that the average person can spend up to 600 hours getting an incident of identity theft cleaned up.

Just remember though. This is criminal activity. You do not need to allow yourself to be forced into paying charges that you did not make.

Have you ever been the victim of identity theft? How difficult was it for you to clean up the mess?

Photo credit: Andres Rueda

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