If you are the victim of identity theft, you need to take action - and quickly. By doing so, you minimize the thief's opportunity to inflict further damage, and you may be able to minimize your financial liability. We'll show you what you can do and who to contact - protecting yourself in as many areas as possible - if your personal information or identity has been stolen. (To learn more about this flagrant crime, see Identity Theft: How To Avoid It.)
Credit Cards May Limit Your Liability
If you respond quickly enough, Visa and MasterCard may limit your liability for identify theft losses to as little as $50. And if your bank-issued credit and ATM cards have been used without your authorization and you report the theft within two days, your losses may also be limited to $50. If you report the loss within 60 days of when your bank statement was sent to you, your losses may be limited to $500. If you wait longer than 60 days, you may be responsible for the entire loss. (Note, however, that bank-issued credit cards do not always honor these liability limits.)
Reporting the Fraud
Reporting the theft and fraudulent use of your identity is the first step in your fight to reclaiming your identity. The steps you will need to take vary based on the actions the criminal has taken, but below we go over the entities victims of identity theft commonly need to contact.
The major credit-reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) have entire departments dedicated to addressing fraud. In theory, if you contact one, all of them will be alerted, but you may want to contact them individually just to be certain. Ask the agencies to flag your report with a fraud alert, which tells companies not to issue credit to anyone applying for credit under your name. There are two types of fraud alerts you can request: an initial alert and an extended alert. An initial alert remains on your credit report for 90 days, and an extended alert remains on your credit report for seven years (to request an extended alert, you need to provide an identity theft report).
The fraud alert is a good first step to take, and when you file a fraud alert, you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report. Request the report and review it for discrepancies. When you inform credit-reporting agencies of fraudulent activity that has taken place in your name, the alert tells agencies to protect your credit rating from being damaged. Keep in mind, however, that the credit-reporting agencies are not legally bound to observe a fraud alert.
Contact all creditors impacted by the fraud. If your credit cards have been used, cancel them and open new accounts. Ask that the accounts be marked as 'closed at consumer's request'. If new accounts have been opened in your name, close the accounts and do not pay any of the charges, but do report and resolve the issue with your creditors. Once the issues have been resolved, request written confirmation from the creditors.
Contact your local police department and file a police report. You may also need to file a report in the location where the theft occurred.
If you are contacted by a debt-collection agency in regards to a debt that you did not incur, inform the agency that you are victim of identity theft. Request contact information about the creditor that has hired the debt-collection agency and contact the creditor directly.
Social Security Administration
If your social security number has been misused, contact the Social Security Administration. If you are faced with the decision of whether or not to change your social security number, remember that it will be extremely difficult to separate your identity from the originally issued number.
If you suspect that your checks have been stolen, contact your bank immediately, and close your account. Also contact the major check-verification firms (Certegy at 1-800-437-5120 and Telecheck at 1-800-710-9898).
If your identity has been stolen, contact SCAN at 1-800-296-0170. Scan is a national database that tracks bad checks, and may be able to let you know if bad checks have been written in your name. You should also contact Chex Systems at 1-800-428-9623 and request a copy of your consumer report, which lists checking accounts that have been opened in your name.
Contact the card issuers and cancel your cards. Once you re-establish the cards, choose unique passwords that you have not used in the past.
Telephone/Utility Service Providers/Agencies
If you have traditional telephone land line established in your name, contact your telephone company and inform it that you are victim of identity theft. Provide a password, and instruct the company not to change your service unless that password is mentioned. You should also contact your state's Public Utility Commission and do the same.
If you have a cellular telephone service established in your name, contact your service provider immediately. You should also contact the Federal Communications Commission at 1-888-CALLFCC and alert them to your identity theft.
Identity thieves often change your address in order to facilitate additional crimes such as the delivery of credit cards and fraudulently purchased merchandise. If you suspect that this has happened to you, you must notify your area's postal inspector. Your local post office should be able to put you in touch with your area's postal inspector.
If you suspect that a driver's license has been established in your name, contact your state's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).
U.S. Department of State, Passport Services
To determine if a passport has been created in your name, contact the U.S. Department of State Passport Services Office at: Consular Lost/Stolen Passport Section, 1111-19th Street, NW, Suite 500, Washington, DC 20036. The phone number is (202) 955-0430.
If an identity thief has filed for bankruptcy in your name, contact the U.S. Trustee at the Department of Justice in the region where the bankruptcy was filed. You may, however, require the assistance of an attorney to navigate your recovery from a false bankruptcy.
Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
If tax fraud has been committed in your name, contact the IRS at 1-877-777-4778.
If criminal violations have occurred in your name, the Attorney General can provide information to help you determine the steps needed to clear your name.
Reclaiming and Protecting Your Identity
Reclaiming your identity is a difficult, time-consuming and potentially expensive task. After the issues resulting from your identify theft have been resolved, you need to remain vigilant. Just because your identity was stolen once doesn't mean that it can't happen again. Monitor your identity by requesting copies of your credit report on a regular basis and reviewing them carefully. (see Consumer Credit Report: What's On It and The Importance Of Your Credit Rating.) With an issue as complicated as identity theft, making an aggressive effort to protect yourself is far easier than that steps you'll need to take to recover once the crime has been committed.