What do you do if your identity has been stolen despite your best efforts to protect yourself from identity theft?
Unfortunately, if you’ve been a victim of identity theft it could take quite a long time to clean up the damage the thief does to you. One of the things that makes this crime such a pain is that its victims often don’t know the full extent of the damage for years. Thieves can use your identity to start up cable or satellite TV services, even bottled water delivery, which typically don’t show up on your credit report until the company sends the account to collections. Depending on how long such a company retains delinquent accounts in their offices those types of accounts may not come to your attention until several months or even a couple of years after your identity is stolen. If you take the following steps, you will be better able to cope with the fallout.
Fill out an identity theft affidavit
This should always be the first step. The Federal Trade Commission has an official identity theft affidavit that is accepted by the credit bureaus, most banks, credit card companies and so on. You can download the affidavit from the FTC website at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/resources/forms/affidavit.pdf. Download the form, print it and fill out all of the information you can. Gather up any evidence you have concerning the identity theft and take everything to the police station. It’s very important that your signature is witnessed by a law enforcement officer.
The instructions on the top of the form present a bit of a Catch-22 for an ID theft victim. It says to close all accounts you feel might have been tampered with or opened fraudulently before filling out the affidavit. However, you may need to send the affidavit as part of the process of closing the accounts. My suggestion is fill out this form and get the police report first, then contact the credit bureaus, your creditors and your bank(s) that same day. This way you can supply the needed paperwork at the time you contact them.
Contact the police
Go to the nearest police station and tell them your identity has been stolen, you need to file a report and have your affidavit witnessed by a law enforcement officer. Take valid identification and proof of residence (such as a utility bill with your name and address on it) with you. When you’ve completed your report and your affidavit is witnessed make sure you get a copy of the police report for your records. This is vital.
Next step is to make several copies of the police report and affidavit for your files. The reason this is important is that there my be fraudulently opened accounts in your name that you don’t know about yet. If or when you discover such accounts you need to have copies of these documents on hand to send to the creditor and/or any debt collectors.
What if the thief is someone you know?
This situation is more common than anyone would like. It requires some special consideration. It may even modify whether you even want to take the above steps. My personal opinion is that decision rests in large measure upon whether the perpetrator accepts responsibility for the crime and is willing to make restitution.
Dealing with this special circumstance is quite involved. You have your rights, your credit and your finances to protect. If the thief is a family member, you have the family to consider. If you know the identity thief I recommend reading “When You Personally Know the Identity Thief” on www.idtheftcenter.org. This site is an excellent resource for information about identity theft.
Cancel your credit cards and ATM cards
Contact every bank you do business with for checking, savings or credit cards. Let them know you’ve been a victim of identity theft and ask them to cancel your existing cards and issue you new ones. This includes debit cards connected to your checking and/or savings accounts. Find out where to send copies of the police report and affidavit and get them sent off right away.
Alert the credit bureaus
It’s vital that you alert the credit bureaus to the fraud as soon as you’ve taken care of your bank accounts. They all have online alert systems on their websites or you can call their fraud departments directly. The phone numbers and website addresses are listed below.
- Equifax: 800-525-6285 or www.equifax.com
- Experian: 888-397-3742 or www.experian.com
- TransUnion: 800-680-7289 or www.transunion.com
Security freeze your account
As of November 2007, individuals nationwide are able to “freeze” their credit reports with Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The TransUnion website has a nice explanation of what a security freeze is and how it works. Here are a couple of paragraphs from their explanation.
When a Security Freeze is added to your TransUnion credit report, all third parties, such as credit lenders or other companies, whose use is not exempt under law will not be able to access your credit report without your consent.
The Security Freeze may delay, interfere with or prohibit the timely approval of any subsequent request or application you make that involves access to your credit report. This may include, but is not limited to, new loans, credit, mortgages, insurance, rental housing, employment, investments, licenses, cellular phone service, utility service, digital signature service, Internet credit card transactions and extension of credit at point of sale.
I recommend that you request a security freeze on your credit report at the time you submit your fraud alert. This prevents the identity thieves from opening new credit accounts in your name after the freeze is established.
Report stolen checks
If you’ve had checks stolen, whether or not you have any other evidence of identity theft it’s vital that you alert your bank immediately. Tell them checks have been stolen and ask them to close your existing account and open a new one right away. If you have outstanding checks that haven’t cleared your bank, notify the payees of the situation and send replacement checks from your new account.
Contact the DMV
If the identity thief has obtained your driver’s license or the license number, report to the Department of Motor Vehicles that someone is using your driver’s license number fraudulently. You can obtain a new driver’s license number. You should be prepared to show proof of theft and damage.
It is possible that someone could obtain your Social Security number and use it to get a job. One way to verify whether or not this is happening is to request a copy of your Social Security earnings statement from the Social Security Administration. It lists your earnings for the last several years. If any of the figures are incorrect, contact the Social Security Administration and report the problem. Let them know that you’ve been a victim of identity theft.
If you take all of the steps I’m advising you to take and your social security number continues to be misused and the misuse is causing you damage, it is possible to obtain a new Social Security Number. If you request a new number you must be able to provide documentation of all of the above steps as well as the continued misuse and damage. I recommend that you move before you change your number. Records connected to your original Social Security Number at the credit bureaus and other government agencies (such as the IRS) will be connected to your address as well. If you begin using your new Social Security Number with the address connected to your old number your problems could persist because both numbers will be linked to that address. If you move and then request the new number from the SSA, your old records are less likely to be connected to your new Social Security Number.
The most important thing about dealing with identity theft is that you need to take control of the situation and follow through. Don’t wait for anyone else to help you deal with these issues. If your bank is supposed to do something and get back to you and you don’t hear from them exactly on time, call back. Write down the names and extensions of every single person you speak to about your case so you can re-contact that person or refer others in their company to them if need be at a later date. If you’re not getting sufficient assistance from a customer service representative, ask to speak to a manager. Be assertive and persistent and make sure your case gets handled properly.
Dealing with debt collectors
One of the most annoying and frustrating aspects of identity theft for most people is calls from debt collectors trying to collect on debts they did not incur. If this happens to you, take the following steps:
- Do not pay any debts you do not recognize as your own, ever.
- Send a written notification to the creditor/collector that you didn’t create the debt and demand written validation of the debt including the signed credit application.
- Some agencies will return a canned response to your demand for validation of the debt that doesn’t include any documentation you may request. Just be prepared for that and take the next step.
- Send the creditor/collector written notice back that you are not liable for the debt(s) and include copies of your ID Theft Affidavit and your police report.
- Follow up and get the creditor/collector to confirm in writing that the account is closed and that you are not liable for the debts and any reports they have made to the credit bureaus about the account will be deleted from your file.
Monitor your credit report
Monitor your credit report regularly. You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each bureau once per year. Sometimes fraudulently opened accounts will be reported to the credit bureaus even if you don’t receive any contact from the creditor or a collector. If you see such an account on your credit report, follow the steps above for dealing with debt collectors.
Since you can get one report per year per bureau you can stagger your requests so you get one credit report every four months. For example you can get your free Equifax report in January, your free Experian report in May, and your free TransUnion report in September. Monitoring your credit this way helps to catch the fraudulent accounts and get them taken care of faster than if you requested the reports from all three bureaus at the same time.