If you’re worried that someone is using your personal information to get credit, goods, or services under your name, trying to find out what has happened—as well as figuring out what to do next—can seem like an overwhelming task. In this article, you’ll learn about the steps you can take to help safeguard your accounts and correct erroneous credit report entries.
Investigating the Situation: Credit Reports
You can find out the extent of the identity theft by getting copies of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies—TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. Don’t worry about paying for them—consumers are entitled to a free credit report every year from each agency through the website annualcreditreport.com. The report won’t include your credit score, however. Companies can charge a fee for providing that service.
After you get the reports, you’ll want to review them for inaccurate information. If you see any unusual activity or personal information that you don't recognize, make a note of it. Here are examples of the type of incorrect information you’ll be looking for when you believe that someone has stolen your identity:
- credit accounts that you didn’t open
- addresses that you’ve never lived at
- employers that you don’t recognize, and
- an incorrect Social Security number.
If you suspect that someone has been giving out your Social Security number to employers for work purposes, you’ll need to contact the Social Security Administration. The SSA can provide you with a copy of your earnings record for your review, either online or in person.
(Find out more about protecting your Social Security number in Loss, Theft, and Your Social Security Number.)
Securing Your Accounts
Once you’ve determined the size and scope of the problem, the next step is to cut off the identity thief’s access to your credit lines or other financial information. To stop any unauthorized use, you can contact each reporting agency and ask for a “credit freeze,” which is an alert that you place on your credit information.
A credit freeze won’t stop you from being able to use your credit, but you will have to approve each use. For instance, once the credit freeze is in place, a lender must contact you and verify that you are the person who asked for the new line of credit before approving the account. So if you’re renting a new place to live, buying a new car, or making some other use of your credit, you might have to lift the freeze temporarily.
If the perpetrator compromises your bank account, you’ll want to close it as soon as possible and open a new one. Federal law limits the amount of money you can lose through the unauthorized use of your bank accounts, credit cards, or debit cards, but you must report the problem promptly to take advantage of the protection.
Create and Use an Identity Theft Report
The biggest tool you have for combating identity theft is an identity theft report. You’ll start by reporting the theft at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website. You'll receive an identity theft report (and other forms) that you can provide to creditors and law enforcement. Some financial institutions might have a form that they will want you to use, but most will accept the FTC form. Additionally, the FTC will create a step-by-step recovery plan that will guide you through the process.
Next, you’ll make a theft report with a law enforcement agency by meeting with an officer at your local police department. Once you have both the FTC and police report (and other FTC forms), you’ll compile your documents and make copies of the complete package. You’ll send the packet to credit reporting agencies, financial institutions, the Social Security Administration, and other creditors, explain that you’ve been an identity theft victim, and ask them to investigate.
(Find out more by reading Filing Police Reports and Identity Theft Reports.)
Measures to Help Prevent Identity Theft
There are additional things that you can do to prevent theft of your personal information in the future. For instance, most people know that they shouldn't carry their Social Security card in their wallets; however, there are other precautionary measures you can take, including:
• Change your online passwords and use stronger passwords or a program to create and keep track of your passwords.
• Don’t give out your Social Security number unless there’s a legal reason to do so.
• Only submit identity information on forms.
• Never click on email links if you don’t recognize the sender or return email address.
• Shred all important papers instead of throwing them in the trash.
• If mail theft is a problem in your area, explore solutions with your local post office.
• Review your credit report once per year.
For additional help, you can seek out advice from a consumer protection agency or attorney.
Questions for Your Attorney
• How do I report identity theft in my area?
• Can you help me review my credit reports for inaccurate information?
• What can I do to keep my information safe in the future?