Editorial Policy

7 things to do when your identity's been stolen

Matt Alderton

December 9, 2014

Although it can't be snatched like a purse, burgled like a home or shoplifted like a pack of gum, your identity is just as easy to steal as your possessions — and infinitely more precious.

“The headlines don't lie,” says Paige Hanson, educational programs manager at identity protection company LifeLock. “Identity theft is an epidemic, and it's definitely growing.”

In fact, 13.1 million people were victims of identity theft in 2013, up 3.9 percent from the prior year, reports Javelin Strategy & Research.

“North of 600 million data records have been breached in the United States since 2005,” says Denis Kelly, CEO of identity theft prevention company ID Cuffs Inc. and author of “The Official Identity Theft Prevention Handbook.”

When a criminal uses your identity fraudulently, it can wreak havoc on your credit. Doing these seven things at the first sign of fraud can help you mitigate the damage:

1. Check your credit report

Common signs of identity theft can include billing statements from creditors you don't recognize, collection calls for accounts you never opened and incongruous credit decisions — such as a high interest rate on a mortgage or a rejected loan application, despite your excellent credit history.

Consumers who encounter these situations should visit AnnualCreditReport.com to download their free annual credit reports from each of the three credit bureaus.

“Look for accounts you don't recognize and balances you didn't authorize,” Kelly says. “Look at your personal identifying information as well. One slight change to your name, for instance — like your middle initial — could mean someone is gearing up to steal your identity.”

2. File a police report

If you see evidence of identity theft — say, an account you didn't open or an address that you don't recognize — a police report is important for several reasons, according to TransUnion Senior Vice President Ken Chaplin. First, it confirms your victimhood. Second, it establishes a paper trail that you can use to support your case with the credit bureaus. Finally, it qualifies you to access certain identity-theft resources and benefits.

“The police aren't going to go out and solve your case right away, but having a record of the crime is going to make the rest of the process easier.”
–Ken Chaplin, TransUnion

“The police aren't going to go out and solve your case right away, but having a record of the crime is going to make the rest of the process easier,” Chaplin says.

3. Request a fraud alert

Ask the credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on your credit report to prevent further abuses.

“It only takes 30 seconds to implement and lasts 90 days,” Kelly says. “It requires creditors to go through an extra verification level — usually a phone call to you confirming your identity — before extending credit to you.”

In extreme cases, consumers can go a step further by requesting a credit freeze.

With a credit freeze,a new line of credit can't be opened, Hanson says. The freeze fee is waived if you file a police report.

4. Contact the creditor

If a legitimate account has been compromised, contact the creditor to have the account closed or renumbered. In many cases, creditors also can resolve fraud claims directly, if you provide proof of identity, such as a driver's license, proof of address and Social Security card.

“They're used to these calls,” Kelly says. “If you contact them, they might be able to resolve the issue right then and there.”

5. Notify the credit bureaus

If the creditor is unable to resolve your claim, you must present it separately to each credit bureau that has reported the fraudulent information.

“On your credit report it will say something like, 'If you have a discrepancy or dispute, contact us,' and it will give you the contact information,” Hanson says.

“Constant vigilance is the key.”
–Paige Hanson, LifeLock

Although the bureaus accept fraud claims online, Kelly recommends submitting by mail, which allows you to submit more documentation — proof of identity, for instance, a copy of your police report and a letter explaining your situation — and could afford you more legal protection in case you have to sue.

“Electronic systems were developed by the bureaus to make things more efficient for them, not necessarily to serve your best interests,” he says. Plus, if you file a dispute online, you waive your right to sue the bureau if things escalate to that point.

Either way, federal law requires credit bureaus to address your concerns within 30 days — although the process could take longer if the bureaus request additional information, or if they rule against your claim, in which case you'll have to resubmit it.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, you should be able to resolve the issue,” Kelly says. “The other 1 percent of the time, you might need legal counsel.”

6. Notify the feds

It's important to file an identity theft complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which you can do online or by phone at (866) 653-4261.

“The FTC looks for patterns of wrongdoing,” Kelly says. “It won't help you resolve your situation, but if you and 10 other people file similar complaints, it could help them stop an identity theft ring and prevent future crimes.”

7. Remain vigilant

Just because you've successfully resolved one instance of identity theft doesn't mean you're immune to future crimes. It's important to continue monitoring your credit report for future breaches.

“Constant vigilance is the key,” Hanson concludes.