Has Your Identity Been Stolen?
If you're lucky, you'll know immediately when your identity has been stolen. A missing wallet or purse sets off an instant alarm. But many victims of identity theft don't learn of it until months after the fact, when enormous damage has been done to their finances and credit. Here's what to look for if you're concerned about possible identity theft...
Signs of Identity Theft
In some cases, the tipoff comes when you start receiving bills for things you did not buy. Even if your credit cards are still safely in your pocket, the information on them may be used to buy things online. Given the right personal information, identity thieves may open charge accounts, utility accounts, and unsecured loan accounts in your name. Often they use a billing address different from the victim's, so the first notice the victim receives is a call from a collection agency. By then, the victim may be on the hook for thousands of dollars with dozens of creditors. And the scammer could be long gone.
The first thing to do when you suspect that your identity has been stolen is to file fraud alerts with all of your financial partners and the major credit bureaus. Here are phone numbers for the credit bureaus. Equifax: 800-525-6285; Experian: 888-397-3742; TransUnion: 800-680-7289.
The credit bureaus are required to give victims of identity theft free copies of their credit reports. (See my related article Free Credit Reports Online for more info.) These reports can help you discover unauthorized applications for credit made in your name. You should also request a "credit freeze" from each of the credit bureaus, which prevents anyone - including you - from obtaining new credit in your name.
If your credit card is lost or stolen, you must report it immediately. Once you have reported your credit cards stolen, you will not be liable for any additional charges that may be made with them. Use these phone numbers to contact the credit card companies:
- American Express: 800-297-7672
- Discover Card: 800-347-2683
- MasterCard: 800-622-7747
- VISA: 866-434-6854
Minimizing the Damage of Identity Theft
Next step: File a police report. Although local police have little power to track down identity thieves across the country, a police report is generally required by other entities when you are trying to repair your credit record.
Contact your State's department of motor vehicles to see if anyone has tried to obtain a driver's license in your name. Do likewise with the Social Security Administration (800-772-1213). Request a copy of your Social Security earnings history to ensure that it is correct. It's not uncommon to find that someone else is working under your name.
Of course, you should close all of your existing credit card accounts immediately. Replace them with new ones if you can. Ask your bank if closing your checking or savings account is a good idea as well.
Change all of your online passwords, even if they are not associated with financial accounts. Be sure to choose strong passwords with a mixture of upper and lower case letters, digits, and special characters. See my related article Is Your Password Hacker Proof? for help selecting a good password.
A credit monitoring service may seem like a good idea right after you've been victimized by identity theft. Such services charge a monthly fee of $10 to $15 to monitor your credit records and alert you of any unusual activity. But they don't prevent identity theft; they only alert you to a problem after you have one. Yes, they will file all of the alerts mentioned above with credit bureaus and card companies, but you can do that yourself.
And credit monitoring services won't do the heavy lifting of defending you against fraudulent debts or rebuilding your credit. Most consumer advocates consider credit monitoring services to be a waste of money. See my article Credit Monitoring for a discussion of the pros and cons.
Have you had personal experience with identity theft? Post a comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 9 Mar 2011
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