Scam prevention expert Sid Kirchheimer outlines the steps you should take if you are victimized by identity theft—or merely suspect you may have been.
Contact a Law Enforcement Agency
It's unlikely that your local police department will solve the case—or even investigate it. Still, filing a police report may help you regain your good name—and your good credit rating—with creditors and credit reporting bureaus. After contacting your local police, you may also need to notify the police department that oversees the location where the identity theft most likely occurred. (You should also contact your state Attorney General's office, which may direct you to other agencies.)
If the identity theft occurred from online activity, contact the Internet Fraud Complaint Center (a partnership between the FBI and the National White Collar Crime Center) at www.ic3.gov.
If you believe the identity theft resulted from mail theft, report it at www.usps.com/websites/depart/inspect.
If you suspect you were victimized by ATM skimming or crime involving your debit card, notify the local Secret Service field office; a contact list is available at www.secretservice.gov/field_offices.shtml.
If you believe your credit card number (or the little plastic rectangle itself) has been stolen, notify the fraud department of your credit card company.
Shut 'Em Down Close the accounts that you know or believe have been tampered with and notify the sponsoring institution(s) of the theft. You usually have to provide the company with two documents: 1) a report filed with the local, state or federal law enforcement agency and 2) an identity theft report.
Some companies provide their own forms for the latter, but most accept the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft Affidavit, which is available online at www.consumer/gov/idtheft. There, you can also find a link to file your complaint with the FTC. Or you can call the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline at 877-438-4338, or write to:
Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20580 Place a Fraud Alert on Your Credit Reports Contact one of the three major credit reporting bureaus and request that a fraud alert be placed on all your credit accounts. (The initial bureau you notify is required to contact the other two, which should then place alerts in their systems.) This signals creditors that you've been victimized by fraud. In theory, it should also block any new accounts from being opened in your name unless someone contacts you first and obtains your express consent.
There are two types of fraud alerts:
An Initial Alert
This alert lasts about 90 days. It is placed by a credit reporting bureau if you suspect that you have been—or simply are about to be—a victim of identity theft. If your wallet has been stolen or you've been hoodwinked by a phishing scam, for instance, you should instruct at least one of the three major credit reporting bureaus to place an initial alert on all your accounts. Taking this action entitles you to one free credit report from each of the Big Three.
An Extended Alert
This alert stays on your credit report for seven years. It should be placed if you know you've been victimized. To have an extended alert placed on your accounts, you will need to provide an identity theft report (generated by your local police department) to at least one consumer reporting company. Placing an extended fraud alert entitles you to receive two free credit reports from each of the three main consumer reporting companies within 12 months. In addition, those firms must automatically remove your name from marketing lists for prescreened credit offers for five years (unless you opt back in). Getting the credit reports allows you to examine them quickly, then notify the appropriate agency (such as retailers, credit-card companies, and the like) of any fraudulent charges—or of any changes that a scammer may have made to your address, Social Security number or other personal data.
In 25 states, you can also get a credit freeze that prevents new lenders and creditors from looking at your personal financial history. A freeze offers more protection than a fraud alert, since responsible lenders are very unlikely to issue credit in your name without a review of your history.
For the specific rules of credit freezes, contact each credit reporting bureau:
Contact Your Bank and Creditors Notify credit card companies (including retail stores for which you have credit accounts), the mortgage company, and the issuer of your car note or other loans. Your credit card companies will likely close your existing accounts and issue you new plastic with a different card number. By law, you will be liable for only $50 in fraudulent charges (and it's unlikely you'll be charged for even that amount).
You may also want to close your existing savings and checking accounts, and move the funds they contained to new accounts. If your financial company isn't helping you as much as you'd like, contact the agency that oversees your bank. To find the name of this agency, call your bank or go to the Institution Search section of the National Information Center of the Federal Reserve System at www.ffiec.gov/nic. Respond Quickly to Debt Collectors If a debt collector contacts you about new accounts opened in your name or unauthorized charges made to existing ones, respond immediately in writing—and keep a copy of your letter. Explain why you don't owe the money in question. Enclose copies of any supporting documents, such as an official identity theft police report or an FTC affidavit.
Also ask the debt collector for the name of the business trying to collect the debt, and the amount allegedly owed. Then contact that business—also in writing—and request copies of the credit applications or any other documents linked to transactions you believe were made by the identity thief. Send these letters by registered mail, and get an acceptance receipt from the post office. Contact the Department of Motor Vehicles This step, often overlooked, must be taken to guarantee that the identity thief has not applied for a new driver's license in your name. These bogus licenses take two forms: a replacement license that pairs your license number with the thief's picture, or a new license with a new number. Ask that a freeze be placed on your license until you can get a bona fide replacement (to simplify this process, bring along your Social Security card and other identifiers). And if your state is one of the 19 that still allow your Social Security number to double as your license number, ask to have another number substituted.
A little preparation now will make all of these steps much easier to take later on, should it come to that. Therefore, make photocopies today of all your credit cards and identifying documents. Include your driver's license, Social Security card, birth certificate and even a business card. Keep these facsimiles in a safe spot in your home, workplace or a safe-deposit box. And don't forget to follow the prime directive of foiling identity thieves: Never, ever carry your Social Security card in your wallet!