Identity theft happens when someone uses your personal information to open new accounts or makes unauthorized charges on your existing accounts. According to the most recent data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 17.6 million people were victims of identity theft in 2014. That's approximately 7% of all U.S. adults, age sixteen or older. Here are some tips on how to spot identity theft and what to do if you've become a victim of it.
How to spot identity theft
Get in the habit of regularly reviewing your credit reports. The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) gives you the right to one free credit report every year from each of the three main credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union. You can obtain these free reports from the website AnnualCreditReport.com. This is the only website where you can get your free report. Watch out for imposter websites. If you request the three reports separately and stagger them every four months or so, you can monitor your credit throughout the year at no charge. Consider using this staggering technique before paying for a credit monitoring service.
Once you have your credit report, look for incorrect personal info, such as addresses you never lived at, inaccurate social security number, or incorrect middle names or nicknames. These may be signs of identity theft. You should also look for accounts that you didn't open or for credit report inquires from companies you never applied for credit from. Any accounts you don't recognize should be red flags. Also, if the balances on your existing accounts appear to be much higher than you think they should be, that could be a sign of unauthorized or fraudulent charges.
In addition to reviewing your credit reports, you should get in the habit of checking the monthly billing statements for all of your existing accounts for suspicious charges. It's also important that you don't ignore bills for accounts you don't recognize or debt collection letters or calls for debts you don't think you owe. While it's tempting to assume that these bills or collection efforts are a mistake and will go away, they may very well be a signal that someone has stolen your identity.
Call the companies where you know fraud has occurred
If you spot unauthorized charges on your existing accounts or fraudulently-opened new accounts, you should contact those creditors immediately. It's best to contact the company's fraud department and ask them to freeze or close the account. Make a note of who you talked to and the date you talked to them and keep it for your records.
Place a fraud alert on your credit reports
The next step is to place an initial fraud alert on your credit reports. All three of the main bureaus--Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union--allow you to do this online. A fraud alert is free and it makes it more difficult for someone to open new accounts in your name. An initial fraud alert lasts for 90 days and requires creditors to take reasonable steps to confirm your identity before opening a new account. If you provide a phone number with an initial fraud alert, creditors will contact you before opening a new account.
You may also consider placing an extended fraud alert on your credit reports. An extended fraud alert lasts for seven years and requires lenders to contact you in person before opening a new account. You may also think about a credit freeze. A freeze stops anyone from accessing your credit report until you lift the freeze. Under Minnesota law, victims of identity theft can place a credit freeze for free. Non-victims must pay a fee of $5.
File an Identity Theft Report with the Federal Trade Commission (and consider filing a police report)
You should also file an Identity Theft Report with the FTC, which can be done online at IdentityTheft.gov. After filing the report, the website will create a recovery plan for your situation. You should print the Identity Theft Report and recovery plan for your records. You can also create an account after you file the report, so that you can access your report and recovery plan later.
After you file the report with the FTC, you should consider filling a police report too because identity theft is a crime. Contact your local police department and tell them you want to report that someone stole your identity. You should give them proof of identity, proof of your address, a copy of your FTC report, and all of the information you have about the identity theft. Make sure to get a copy of the police report and keep it for your records.
Close fraudulently-opened accounts and remove unauthorized charges to existing accounts
Make a list of all the accounts opened by the identity thief and any suspicious charges to your existing accounts. Call the fraud department for each of these creditors and provide them with a copy of the FTC Identity Theft Report and police report (if you have one). Ask that all fraud accounts be closed immediately and that any unauthorized charges be reversed. Ask for confirmation in writing that the account is closed or charges are reversed and that you don't have any liability for these accounts or charges. Keep copies of these letters.
Write dispute letters to the credit bureaus for all fraud accounts showing on your credit report
Write a letter to each of the big-three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union). Tell them about every single account that was opened through identity theft. A good way to do this is to send them a copy of your credit report and circle or star all the fraudulent accounts. Include a copy of your FTC Identity Theft report and police report if you have one. Make sure to request in your letter that they block all of these accounts from your credit reports. A good sample letter can be found at the FTC website. Keep copies of these letters, as well as copies of the responses you get from the credit bureaus.
If you get collection calls for letters for fraud accounts, notify the debt collector of the identity theft
It's no surprise that most identity thieves don't make payments on the debts they rack up in your name. As a result, many identity theft victims receive collection calls and letters from debt collectors. If this happens, notify the debt collector in writing that you are a victim of identity theft and that you don't owe the money they are trying to collect. Send them a copy of your FTC Identity Theft Report, police report, and any letters from the creditor confirming that you don't owe money. Keep a copy of your letter and any collection letters you get in response. It's also a good idea to keep a call log of all the collection calls and messages you get.
Contact an attorney if the fraud accounts aren't removed from your credit reports after you dispute them, or if a debt collector keeps contacting you after you've told them about the identity theft
If the credit bureaus don't remove the fraud accounts after you dispute them in writing, or if debt collectors continue to hound you after you've told them about the identity theft, you should contact a consumer attorney in your state to discuss the situation in depth. There are powerful laws, such as the Fair Credit Report Act and Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, that can be used against credit reporting agencies, creditors, and debt collectors who don't follow the law. A consumer attorney can help clean up your credit report and stop collection calls, as well as discuss any legal claims that you may have to hold wrongdoers accountable for breaking the law.