Shred sensitive documents, power up your passwords, stay alert for frauds—these are all good ideas. But even if you do everything possible to stop attempts at stealing your identity, there’s always a chance you’ll take a hit. Maybe you slipped up, or maybe the breach was totally out of your control. No matter how it happened, the moment you realize you’ve been hit with identity theft, there are three things you need to do immediately.
1. Place a Fraud Alert
The Federal Trade Commission offers a fantastic resource for victims of identity theft. It’s also a useful site for those who simply want to know more about the problem and its solutions. According to the FTC, your very first step is to place an initial fraud alert with one of the three big credit reporting agencies: Equifax,Experian, or TransUnion. You only have to place the alert with one of them; the one you choose will pass along the alert to the others. However, the FTC recommends that you confirm that your information should be shared.
Placing this initial fraud alert makes it harder for the thief to set up new accounts in your name. Before extending new credit, a business must contact you and verify your identity. After 90 days, the fraud alert expires. Information from the FTC suggests marking the expiry date on your calendar, so you can renew it if you haven’t resolved your identity problems.
2. Order Credit Reports
You probably know that you’re entitled to an annual free credit report from each of the three agencies. Placing the fraud alert on your file entitles you to a set of three reports even if it hasn’t been a year since your last request.
Don’t go to annualcreditreport.com for this request, and definitely don’t go to one of the look-alike sites that try to make you pay for free reports, or try to steal your identity. You’ll need to contact the three agencies directly. They’ll be able to see that you did indeed file a fraud alert, and will then release the report.
3. File an Identity Theft Report
Identity theft has been a federal offense since 1998. It’s a crime, and you should report it to the police, but there’s more you can do to protect yourself. By combining a government affidavit about the crime with that police report, you create an official Identity Theft Report, which gives you certain important rights.
Fill out an identity theft complaint on the FTC’s website, and include all the details that you know about what happened. When you’ve finished, print the resulting affidavit and take it along when filing the police report.
The report will help you recover from identity theft. It allows you to have fraudulent data removed from your credit report. If businesses are breathing down your neck about collecting debts you didn’t incur, it can put them on hold and prevent them from selling the debt to a collection agency. And you may be able to get information about accounts the thief opened in your name.
You can also place an extended fraud alert, which is a level up from the initial fraud alert mentioned earlier. This alert gets you two free credit reports per year from the three agencies, and it enjoins them to take your name off marketing lists for prescreened credit cards for five years. This is not the same as a credit freeze, which blocks all access to your credit report but generally requires a small payment to each of the agencies.
Taking these three steps as soon as possible should limit the damage an identity thief can do, but it’s only the beginning. The FTC suggests keeping a log of every communication related to your identity theft, whether it’s via mail, email, or phone. You’ll definitely get a lot of use from the agency’s Repairing Identity Theft instructions. Among other things, you can find sample letters and forms, a statement of victims’ rights, and instructions for repairing your credit. Identity theft is definitely a violation, but by following the correct steps you can limit the damage and go on to recover.
DECEMBER 3, 2014