It might start with a phone call from a collection agency for a debt you don’t recognize—or an unfamiliar entry might turn up on your credit report when you try to qualify for a home mortgage. It might even start when you receive a court summons for a crime you didn’t commit. Instances such as these alert people to the fact that they’ve been a victim of identity theft.
If you find yourself in this situation, you’ll want to file a police report because it triggers some important legal rights. Here are some tips for gaining the assistance you’ll need to help resolve your situation.
What Is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is the use of a person’s confidential identifying information without their consent to get access to their credit, benefits, or bank accounts and can occur anytime your personal information is lost or exposed. Some ways this can happen include:
- loss or theft of a wallet
- mail theft, or
- a security breach at your bank or on an online website.
Victims often don’t realize that someone is using their information for some time. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the total losses from this crime are likely much higher than reported.
(Find out more by reading If You're a Victim of Identity Theft.)
Why Should You File a Police Report?
Federal and state laws provide protections to identity theft victims, but you won’t be able to take advantage of them without making a police report first. Some of the federal laws are:
- The Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998. This law makes identity theft a federal crime.
- The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA). FACTA requires credit reporting agencies to investigate allegations of identity theft, gives victims the ability to place fraud alerts on their accounts, and provides victims with free copies of their credit reports.
- The Fair Credit Billing Act and the Electronic Funds Transfer Act. This law limits the amount that a credit card company or bank can charge you for unauthorized withdrawals or fraudulent accounts.
- The Identity Theft Penalty Enhancement Act. This Act establishes criminal penalties against identity thieves who commit felonies, terrorism, or immigration fraud using another person’s identifying information.
Additionally, some states have identity theft laws that increase the protections offered by the federal laws. For example, California penalizes offenders more harshly if the identity theft victim is disabled or a senior citizen.
(For additional help, see Consumer Protection Laws.)
Using the Federal Trade Commission Affidavit
Before you contact your local police department, you should report the theft online (and at no cost) on the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) website. This form collects important facts you will need, including:
- when the identity theft occurred
- the accounts involved, and
- the people who might be responsible.
After you finish reporting the situation, the FTC will generate an identity theft report that you can provide to your creditors and law enforcement. You'll also receive additional forms that you'll need when taking the appropriate notification steps.
The FTC will also create an action plan, or "recovery plan," that will help you get back on your financial feet. Additionally, you'll receive step-by-step guidance throughout the process. For instance, your recovery plan will explain what you need to do (and the forms you'll need to take) when you make your police report.
If you'd like to read more about the process before filling out your online report, you can review a list of identity theft recovery topics on the FTC site. You'll find advice on the following subjects:
- calling creditors and other companies defrauded by the perpetrator
- obtaining credit reports and placing fraud alerts on your accounts, and
- reporting fraud to law enforcement and the FTC.
Approaching Your Local Police Department
The FTC recommends reporting identity theft to your local law enforcement agency. Depending on where you live, this might be a city police department or a county sheriff.
Sometimes law enforcement is reluctant to take an identity theft report because of a lack of resources to investigate the crime—which is understandable because identity theft is a difficult problem to solve. The perpetrators are often unknown or reside in a different jurisdiction.
Still, you must make the report before you can take advantage of numerous consumer protections. If you find yourself being turned away, politely but firmly insist on giving the report, even if the department has no intention of investigating the crime.
Be aware that some states have laws in place that require the police department to take the identity theft report. It helps to approach the agency in person or to call using the non-emergency number. Also, the department’s website will likely provide helpful instructions, and you might be able to make your report online.
Assisting With the Investigation
When you report an identity theft crime, you’re expected to help authorities with the investigation as much as possible. Any details you can give are helpful, especially information that might identify the perpetrators.
It’s not unusual for this to bring up an uncomfortable issue, however. In many situations, the victim knows the person unlawfully using the victim’s personal identifying information, and the victim is reluctant to get the perpetrator in trouble—or might even fear retaliation. Here are two options to consider if you know the person who committed the offense:
- Report the identity theft and assist with any investigation.
- Resolve the situation privately by paying the entire debt, or negotiating the debt down to an amount less than what’s owed.
If you’re unsure how to proceed—especially if you fear for your safety—you might want to seek counsel with an attorney or an organization specializing in victim assistance.
Notifying Your Creditors and Other Organizations
Once you have your police report, you’ll want to attach a copy to the completed Identity Theft Victim’s Complaint and Affidavit. These two documents together make a package that you can then copy and send to credit reporting agencies, banks, utility companies, the Social Security Administration, and any other organizations you may need to contact about the theft.
(If someone is wrongfully using your Social Security number, read Loss, Theft and Your Social Security Number.)
Questions for Your Attorney
- How can I tell if I am a victim of identity theft?
- How do I report the theft to law enforcement in my city?
- What can I do to safeguard personal information in the future?