Identity Theft is one of the top consumer complaints at the Federal Trade Commission. In 2016, 29% of the victims of identity theft reported that their data was used to commit tax fraud. And 32% reported that their stolen data was involved in credit card fraud. The top three states reporting identify theft complaints were Michigan, Florida and Delaware.
Identify theft happens when your personal information – like your name, Social Security number or credit card – is stolen and used without your permission to commit crimes like ordering products under your name or filing a false tax return to get a tax refund using your Social Security number. Identity theft is a serious crime that can cause you lots of problems: lost time and money; ruined credit and a deep feeling of personal violation.
It can take many hours to resolve credit disputes and repair your good name after becoming a victim of identity theft. Many times, you don’t even realize they you’re a victim until you get a copy of your credit card statement, review your credit report or even worse – get a call from a debt collector for a debt you never authorized.
What can you do if you’re a victim of identity theft?
1. Contact your bank or credit card company immediately and tell them that you believe that your identity has been stolen.
Close the account. Request that the unauthorized debts be discharged. Don’t just rely on a telephone call or even a personal visit to your financial institution, follow up in writing and keep copies of your correspondence. Send your letter by certified mail return receipt requested to document the receipt of your letter.
Change the passwords or PINs to your other credit cards and to your online banking. Assume that if one credit card has been hacked, others may be too.
2. Get a copy of your credit report and place a fraud alert with the credit reporting agencies.
A call to just one of the credit reporting agencies is all you need since whichever company you call will inform the other two.
Although lots of sites claim to provide you with a free credit report, don’t believe them. Here is a link to one that is really free: www.annualcreditreport.com
Check your credit reports carefully for debts you didn’t authorize or accounts that you didn’t open. Report any fraudulent activity to the credit reporting agency immediately.
The three major companies are:
Equifax: 888-766-0008 www.equifax.com
TransUnion: 800-680-7289 www.transunion.com
Experian: 888-397-3742 www.experian.com
After you’ve filed a fraud report, check your credit report at least quarterly until you’re sure that the problem has been resolved. Then be vigilant in reviewing your credit report at least annually. Set yourself a digital reminder on your phone or computer to do so.
3. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission
The motto on the Federal Trade Commission’s website (www.ftc.gov) is “Protecting America’s Consumers” – clearly they’re looking out for your best interest. A hyperlink on the FTC’s homepage captioned “Report Identity Theft” takes you to www.identitytheft.gov where you can both report your identity theft and get a printable online recovery plan.
A wealth of helpful information is there about things to do right away (call the companies where fraud has occurred, place fraud alert, etc.); steps to repair the damage (close new unauthorized accounts in your name, correct your credit report, etc.); specific help for different types of theft situations (misused Social Security number, stopping debt collectors from trying to collect debts you didn’t make, replacing government-issued forms of identification, etc.); steps to take for certain accounts (utilities, phones, checking account or investment accounts, etc.) and much more.
The option to print checklists to help you stay organized through this process can bring order to what can be a stressful and time-consuming process of recovery. This site is very helpful and shouldn’t be overlooked.
4. File a Police Report
Contact your local police and file a report. If your identity was stolen from some hacker who lives abroad, it’s unlikely the local police will be of much assistance. But it’s important to provide proof of the crime to creditors and filing a police report is a way to do it. Be sure to get a copy of the report.
And who knows – maybe it was a roommate, a co-worker, a disgruntled ex-spouse or someone local who hacked your account and the police may be of help.
5. Make it less likely that your identity will be stolen again
If your identity was stolen by hacking your computer, what other online account passwords were stolen? Consider changing your passwords to your social media accounts, your online shopping sites (like Amazon), your frequent flyer credentials and even your medical identity if you access your medical information online.
I know it’s a hassle but use different passwords for different sites. There are both paid for and free password managers available to help you come up with strong, secure passwords. (PC Magazine recently recommended LastPass 4.0 and LogMEOnce Password Management Suite Premium as free password managers. Both also have recommended paid versions.)
Be careful what you share online for personal information. Criminals search social media sites for personal documents and other information that will help lead them to you and your computer. Consider limiting your online social account access to just family and friends.
Practice safer online activities. Make sure your computer, phone and tablets are all password protected. Use fingerprint scanning technology when available to keep them locked. Check your anti-virus software to be sure it’s up to date and install any needed updates or patches to your browsers.
Don’t click on unknown links and be wary of downloads and pop-ups. Be suspicious of unknown emails that contain links or attachments as they could be phishing scams. If using public Wi-Fi, don’t access accounts that require that you put in passwords.
Enjoy all the internet has to offer but be vigilant and take steps now to protect yourself from cybercriminals looking to steal your identity.