10 Things to Do if Your Identity Is Stolen
Last year, $16.9 billion was lost as a result of identity fraud, according to the 2020 Identity Fraud Study from research and advisory firm Javelin. In the first half of 2020 alone, 571,188 identity theft reports were made to the Federal Trade Commission, and people reported a median loss of $200.
Not all fraud rises to the level of identity theft, and by itself, a security breach doesn’t constitute a stolen identity. Rather, identity theft happens when someone uses your personal information to open new financial accounts, file tax returns or even make fraudulent medical claims.
“There’s a whole litany of areas in which identity theft can make your life more challenging,” says Mike Tanenbaum, executive vice president for Chubb financial lines. Not only is it a crime that can cost you money, but it could require significant time and effort to resolve.
To minimize the damage, here are 10 steps to take once you realize you may be a victim of identity theft.
- File a claim with your identity theft insurance, if applicable.
- Notify companies of your stolen identity.
- File a report with the Federal Trade Commission.
- Contact your local police department.
- Place a fraud alert on your credit reports.
- Freeze your credit.
- Sign up for a credit monitoring service, if offered.
- Tighten security on your accounts.
- Review your credit reports for mystery accounts.
- Scan credit card and bank statements for unauthorized charges.
1. File a claim with your identity theft insurance, if applicable.
If you have an identity theft protection plan, your provider should be able to guide you through many of the following steps. Companies such as LifeLock and IdentityForce sell identity theft protection plans, but even if you haven’t purchased coverage, you may have it through an insurer or employer.
“One of your first calls should be to your insurance companies or human resources department,” says Adam Levin, founder and chairman of CyberScout, a data and identity protection company. Some employers offer identity theft resolution services as a job benefit while insurers may roll it into their products. For instance, Chubb offers complimentary identity theft resolution services to its policyholders.
2. Notify companies of your stolen identity.
Don’t wait to notify any company where fraudulent transactions or accounts have occurred. Call them immediately to alert them to the problem.
In cases of account takeovers, your credit card number might be compromised but thieves may not have access to your personal information. “That can be solved many times by picking up the phone and calling the credit card issuer,” Levin says.
However, if someone is opening up accounts in your name, impersonating you or using your Social Security number, you may want to proactively contact other companies and agencies. For example, you should notify the IRS if your Social Security number was used to file an income tax return; this can be done by submitting a Form 14039 Identity Theft Affidavit. Likewise, if someone is impersonating you, alert your health insurance company in case they attempt to obtain medical care under your name or policy number.
3. File a report with the FTC.
The FTC compiles information about identity theft cases. It doesn’t have the ability to pursue criminal charges, but its information may be used by law enforcement agencies such as the FBI to track down perpetrators.
To file a report with the FTC, visit www.identitytheft.gov. As part of the reporting process, you’ll receive a recovery plan and even prefilled letters and forms that can be used to file police reports and dispute fraudulent charges.
Keep in mind that identity theft is defined as impersonating another person or using their information for financial gain. A stolen credit card number or security breach does not have to be reported to the FTC.
4. Contact your local police department.
The next step is to file a report with your local police department.
“The police report is to protect yourself,” Tanenbaum says. It creates a paper trail that could be useful in the future. For instance, if someone uses your information to commit a crime, having documentation of identity theft could make resolving the matter easier.
Although the police may not be able to do anything if your identity was stolen by criminals online and overseas, your report could help them track down someone who is stealing information locally. “If it’s someone local or someone you know, they can be successful,” says James Simasko, an elder law attorney with Simasko Law in Mount Clemens, Michigan.
5. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports.
Now it’s time to follow up with the three major credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion – and request a fraud alert be placed on your account. The fraud alert stays on your credit report for a year, and it notifies any institution that pulls your credit report to the fact your identity may be compromised.
“The creditor is going to look more closely at the person applying to make sure it’s you,” Levin says. You only have to request a fraud alert from one of the credit bureaus and that company should notify the other two firms. Requesting a fraud alert is free.
6. Freeze your credit.
For an added layer of protection, you can initiate a credit freeze which will completely cut off access to your credit report. That means the credit bureaus won’t share your report with anyone who requests it.
You’ll need to contact each bureau individually to request they freeze your credit. The process is free, and Tanenbaum recommends freezing credit reports for children as well, since they too can be victims of identity theft.
7. Sign up for a credit monitoring service, if offered.
If your information was accessed in a data breach, you may be offered complimentary credit monitoring. These services watch credit reports for suspicious activity and send alerts whenever a new account is opened.
If you aren’t offered free credit monitoring, you can sign up for a reputable service yourself. LifeLock, one popular provider, has plans ranging from a $9.99 per month standard plan for Social Security number and credit alerts to a $29.99 per month service that will watch bank and 401(k) accounts as well as look for any crimes committed in your name. Both come with reimbursement for stolen funds. Pricing is good for the first year and increases in the second year.
Other options include Complete ID plans available through warehouse club Costco for $8.99 to $13.99 a month and PrivacyGuard which charges $1 for the first 14 days and then $9.99 to $24.99 per month after that. Plan benefits vary by company.
8. Tighten security on your accounts.
Cybersecurity experts are quick to point out that most people don’t practice what they call good password hygiene. “Most people never change their password,” Tanenbaum says. Even worse, they use the same passwords or a close variation on every site.
Using a password manager is an easy way to ensure all your accounts have strong passwords. These services generate passwords that cannot be easily guessed and then store and autofill them on websites so users don’t need to remember each one.
LastPass offers a free password manager for one user. The company also has a premium plan for $3 a month that includes file storage and priority support services. Tanenbaum likes Dashlane, which also has a free version as well as a $4.99 per month premium service that includes a VPN for encrypted web browsing while on public Wi-Fi.
Other ways to avoid future instances of identity theft include shredding documents with personal information, not carrying your Social Security number in your wallet and not clicking on links in emails from suspicious or unknown senders. Delete any personal information such as addresses and phone numbers off public profiles on social media and other sites. Whenever offered, enable two-factor authentication, which will require both a password and a code delivered via email, text or phone for access to an account.
9. Review your credit reports for mystery accounts.
Whether you’re a victim of credit card fraud or a stolen identity, you need to check your credit reports for any accounts you may not recognize. By law, you’re entitled to at least one free credit report from each agency each year. However, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, people can now request a free credit report weekly from Experian, Equifax and TransUnion through April 2021.
“What’s very important is periodically checking your credit reports” Simasko says. Once your personal information has been stolen, it could be circulated and sold on the dark web. That means identity theft fraud isn’t a one-time occurrence but could happen again in the future.
While plenty of websites and creditors promise free credit reports, the official site to request them is AnnualCreditReport.com.
10. Scan credit card and bank statements for other unauthorized charges.
In addition to your credit reports, pull up your other accounts and scan old statements for other charges you don’t recognize. Don’t forget to review dormant or infrequently used accounts as well. If you find unknown charges, call the financial institution to alert them of the problem and request the account be locked or closed.
Identity theft victims should talk to their financial institutions to determine how best to avoid further damage. In most cases, that will involve closing and reopening accounts, even ones that haven’t been compromised. It can be a tedious process, but a necessary one to avoid a thief from gaining future control of your money.