In some of our previous articles on the subject of identity theft, we’ve highlighted steps you can take to protect yourself against identity thieves and other bad actors. Naturally, it’s important to know how to navigate an increasingly complex financial landscape with safety and security. As the old saying goes, an ounce of protection is worth a pound of the cure.
But it’s also fair to acknowledge that sometimes, no matter how diligent we are about protecting ourselves, identity theft simply happens.
In fact, it happens a lot. According to an article in U.S. News & World Report, more than 15 million Americans fell victim to identity theft in 2022. This amounted to $20 billion lost by everyday consumers. According to U.S. News & World Report, “identity theft happens when someone uses your personal information to open new financial accounts, file tax returns or even make fraudulent medical claims. Not only is it a crime that can cost you money, but it could require significant time and effort to resolve.”
Whether your personal information has been stolen as part of a large scale security breach through a bank or credit card issuer, you’ve been the victim of an online phishing scam, or your credit card details have simply been hijacked by one bad actor working at a supermarket checkout counter, identity theft can be costly and even potentially damaging.
As a victim of identity theft, you may experience financial and emotional turmoil, as well as a whole mess of annoying administrative tasks. If you suspect that you’ve been victimized by identity theft, it’s crucial to take immediate and strategic actions to limit the damage and restore your stolen identity.
But where to begin? Learning that your identity and financial details have been stolen can be a deeply distressing experience. So what steps can you take to undo the impact of identity theft and recover anything that you might have lost in the process?
For a look at some of the warning signs that somebody might be attempting to make a victim out of you, be on the lookout for these 10 email phishing scams. Identity thieves often use these tactics to troll for identity theft victims. Know the warning signs and ensure you aren’t one of them.
If you’ve already been victimized, read on to find out what steps to take next.
12 Steps to Take If You’re a Victim of Identity Theft
Speaking with candor, being the victim of identity fraud can be one great big hassle. An identity thief can deplete your financial resources, cause damage to your credit, and produce a sequence of bureaucratic and administrative headaches that can take months or even years to unravel.
That’s why it’s extremely important to take action promptly and precisely. The 12 steps below offer a basic blueprint for what to do if your identity is stolen.
Step 1: Remain Calm
Discovering that you are a victim of identity theft can be a stressful situation. Even before you can begin to calculate the financial impact of this theft, it’s natural to feel a sense of violation. It can be deeply unsettling just to know that a criminal has gotten their hands on your personal information, has accessed your financial assets, and is using your name somewhere out there in the world.
That’s why the first step is to remain calm. Think clearly and rationally. There’s a good chance that you will need to take several important steps to recover fully from the fallout of this crime. Avoid panicking, and instead immediately place yourself in problem solving mode.
Step 2: Review Your Complete Credit Report
Once you’ve gotten into a good head space, you’ll need to gain a fuller understanding of the extent of the financial fraud perpetrated in your name. The best thing you can do here is get free credit reports from the three credit reporting agencies–TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. Historically, you were entitled to two free credit reports per year, however recent federal law allows you to request free credit reports from each of the three credit bureaus every year.
Now is a great time to take advantage of that law. Get all of your credit reports and begin to review the information thoroughly. This information generally includes your overall credit score as well as your credit mix, payment history, your credit usage rate and any alerts related to delinquent accounts, negative reports, or warning signs of possible identity theft.
Aura advises, “Get a free copy of credit reports from each of the three bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com. Check them for fraudulent transactions or unfamiliar accounts, hard inquiries, and new or inaccurate information. Contact the bureaus to report your findings, and request that they investigate all disputed items on your report.”
Make sure to review your credit report thoroughly and to address any inconsistencies with your personal records. Since you already know that you’ve been the victim of identity theft, you can already expect to see a few discrepancies on your report. The purpose of this step is to determine just how extensive the damage actually is.
Flag any debts, accounts, transactions, or negative reports that don’t belong to you and use your credit monitoring service to indicate your plans to dispute these details.
Step 3: Notify Credit Bureaus
Now that you’ve flagged these items and taken steps to dispute fraudulent charges, you’ll also want to reach out to the three credit reporting agencies directly to report identity theft. In most cases, each of the three credit bureaus will place a fraud alert on your credit reports.
This helps prevent further unauthorized access to your credit as an investigation is launched into the alleged act of fraud. It also allows you to place a credit freeze on your accounts so that they can no longer be used by the identity thief.
In order to do this, says Aura, “You’ll need to contact each credit bureau separately and provide proof of your identity to initiate the freeze. The bureau will provide you with a PIN that allows you to freeze and later ‘thaw’ your credit file with them.”
Visit the corresponding websites for Experian, Equifax and TransUnion for further information on how to freeze your accounts, and how to unfreeze them when you’re ready.
Step 4: Review Your Accounts
Now that you’ve notified the credit bureaus of your situation and you’ve put a stop to any further unauthorized spending, it’s time to begin repairing the damage. This starts with a thorough review of all the transactions in the accounts affected by the theft.
Thoroughly examine your financial accounts and statements for any unauthorized transactions. It will be up to you to identify and itemize red flags in your account statements. If you are to have any chance of reversing charges or recovering lost funds, you’ll need to start by fully documenting each one.
This can also help your financial institution pinpoint the moment at which the theft occurred. Speaking of which, now that you have a full accounting for all improper or unauthorized charges, it’s time to reach out directly to these financial institutions.
Step 5: Contact Your Financial Institutions
You’ll want to make a full list of every financial institution in your orbit that might have been impacted by the identity theft. Most of these institutions will have departments charged with receiving and investigating reports of fraud and identity theft. These support services can usually provide you with some direction and guidance as you work to untangle the knot created by your identity thief.
Reach out to your bank, credit card companies, and other financial institutions to let them know what has occurred. This is an important step for a number of reasons. First and foremost, personnel through your financial institutions should be able to guide you on securing your account against future fraud. In the case of credit card accounts, this may result in the issuance of a new credit card number altogether.
Your outreach should also include bank accounts which have not been impacted by fraud…yet.
As Aura explains, “Even if scammers haven’t accessed your bank account, you’ll want to contact your financial institution’s fraud department and inform them that you could be at risk. They’ll most likely cancel your accounts, credit, and debit cards, and issue you new ones.”
Most financial institutions have well defined policies for handling identity theft and, in most cases, these policies will comply with broader regulatory requirements. Such is to say that we, as credit card consumers, do have some protections or recourse against identity theft including including inbuilt identity theft insurance. Learn everything you can about said protections and any recourse you have against lost funds. Make sure you’re receiving all the help you need.
Indeed, some institutions will even help you through the difficult process of reversing unauthorized transactions. This may be easier to achieve when dealing with unauthorized credit card transactions as opposed to unauthorized use of a spending account where an identity thief has had access to your actual cash flow.
In either instance, once you have submitted an identity theft report, your financial institution will likely launch an investigation to determine the veracity and extent of the allegation. The results of this investigation will be used to help to reverse any unauthorized charges.
Step 6: File a Report with the FTC
As noted above, your financial institutions will typically launch investigations into alleged identity theft. In order to assist in this investigation, you’ll need to create an official identity theft report. This process begins with your outreach The Federal Trade Commission (FTC). When you contact the FTC, you will provide the details of your case in an official ID Theft Affidavit.
According to U.S. News & World Report, “The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, compiles information about identity theft cases. It doesn’t have the ability to pursue criminal charges, but its information may be used by law enforcement agencies such as the FBI to track down perpetrators. To file a report with the FTC, visit www.identitytheft.gov. As part of the reporting process, you’ll receive a recovery plan and even prefilled letters and forms that can be used to file police reports and dispute fraudulent charges.”
Consider the FTC a source for advocacy, especially if you’ve been left with a major cleanup job. The FTC can help guide you through this process and assist you as you attempt to retrieve all of the compensation and recovery funds to which you are entitled. To get started, visit the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website or call their Identity Theft Hotline to file a report.
Once you’ve filed an Identity Theft Affidavit, you will be able to report the incident as a crime.
Step 7: Contact Law Enforcement
Once again, the FTC can help by providing you with a recovery plan. But this agency won’t necessarily take steps to punish the perpetrator. This is a job that actually starts with your local police department. And while it is entirely possible that the theft occurred online or overseas, you still need to begin your legal paper trail with your local law enforcement agency.
When you report the identity theft to your local police department, this is the step that creates an official record of the incident as a crime. According to an article from the U.S. Bank, you’ll need to “Take your Identity Theft Affidavit to your local law enforcement agency to report the incident and get the police report. Bring the affidavit, government-issued photo identification and proof of address such as a utility bill. It will help to show other proof of the theft, such as financial statements showing fraudulent charges.”
Now I know what you’re thinking. The police probably aren’t going to catch the perpetrator, or even expend actual law enforcement resources in an attempt to do so.. But that’s not really the point of filing a police report. This report is more important when it comes to your personal recovery plan. As you take additional steps to repair the damage through your financial institutions and creditors, you might be required to present an official police report as partial proof of the incident.
While we wouldn’t hold our breath on bringing your identity thief to justice, we would strongly recommend keeping a copy of your police report on file so that you can present it any time you are required to do so. This should help ease the burden of proving your case when pursuing remedies such as recovered funds and reversed credit card charges.
Step 8: Create an Official Identity Theft Report
In fact, the U.S. Bank urges identity theft victims to combine the Identity Theft Affidavit and police report in order to create what is called an Identity Theft Report. This is something that you may well need to keep on hand into the foreseeable future. Now that you’ve been the victim of identity theft, many of your accounts will carry an extended fraud alert.
According to the article from the U.S. Bank, “Some or all of the people you deal with on significant financial matters — potentially for years — will want to see the report to be convinced that you are not the identity thief.”
Simply stated, future creditors may require you to present your official Identity Theft Report in order to prove that you are who you claim to be. This measure is meant for your protection of course, but you may also face some difficult hurdles in the future when opening new accounts or applying for new lines of credit if you don’t have that Report on hand.
Step 9: Notify Other Relevant Parties
While you’re busy taking action to undo the damage caused by the perpetrator, your identity thief may still be actively looking for ways to leverage your accounts and information. Make sure they have nowhere to go with this information. Reach out to all of your creditors and any other organizations you have financial relationships with to inform them of the identity theft.
This should include all banks and credit card issuers (even those not yet impacted by the breach) as well as utility companies, healthcare providers, retail accounts, etc. In most cases, you’ll want to reach out to the fraud department or identity theft resource center to inform them of the incident. Most organizations will place a fraud alert on your account, which should prevent the identity thieves from using your identity in various contexts.
Step 10: Update Your Passwords and PINs
Once your personal information has been breached, there’s really no way to know just how extensive your exposure has been. The safest measure is to simply update access information for every one of your bank accounts, credit accounts, and investment accounts.
You’ll need to change all passwords and PINs associated with your financial accounts, email addresses, and any other online platforms. It’s also important to use strong, unique passwords for each of your accounts.
The article from U.S. News & World Report, recommends “using a password manager, such as Bitwarden or Dashlane,” which it describes as “an easy way to ensure all your accounts have strong passwords. Whenever offered, enable two-factor authentication, which will require both a password and a code delivered via email, text or phone for access to an account.”
While you’re at it, this is a good time to ensure that all of your physical documents are also safe, secure and private. Begin by storing important documents in a secure place, but one that provides for easy retrieval when necessary. You may consider locking sensitive information in a fireproof home lock box or safe. And never send original versions of your important documents through snail mail, or email copies of sensitive information through an unsecured account.
It is also advisable to get a shredder, if you don’t already have one. Believe it or not, identity thieves will comb through your trash in search of discarded credit card statements, bank statements, and other documents containing information which can be used to open new accounts in your name. Make a habit out of shredding any documents you no longer need before disposing of them.
This step should not only help you mitigate the damage of the recent identity theft incident but should also help to prevent future breaches of your private information.
Step 11: Monitor Your Credit and Accounts
On the subject of preventing future breaches, it is now doubly important that you keep a close watch on your accounts. The best thing you can do at this juncture is set up an account that allows you to regularly monitor your credit reports and financial accounts for any further signs of suspicious activity. You may want to consider using a credit monitoring service like Free Credit Report or Credit Karma.
In addition to giving you direct oversight of your credit report, where you can track for any unexpected changes in your credit score or the sudden appearance of fraudulent accounts, most credit monitoring services also include automatic fraud alerts and customer notifications for any number of incidents or suspicious activity.
For instance, your credit monitoring service will notify you if your personal information has been exposed as a consequence of a security breach with one of your creditors. This doesn’t mean that you’ve been victimized by identity fraud but it does significantly raise your vulnerability to identity theft.
Receiving an alert through your free credit report service may allow you to take preemptive action, whether you reach out to your creditors to enhance the security of your accounts or you simply update any related passwords or PINs.
Step 12: Consider Professional Help
As noted above, when you file your FTC Identity Theft Report, you will also receive support with the recovery process. But for extremely complex and damaging cases of identity theft, you may simply wish to contact a professional agency for support.
You should be able to complete most of the steps listed here above on your own. However, this assumes that you don’t run into any roadblocks along the way. To be frank, avoiding roadblocks isn’t too likely. Identity thieves tend to leave a pretty big mess in their wake. Sometimes cleaning up that mess may require you to navigate some fairly complex bureaucracies.
If you find that you are having difficulty unraveling the twisted state of your financial affairs, you should consider consulting an identity theft recovery service or a legal professional specializing in identity theft cases.
The right service can assist you in recovering lost funds, reversing charges, having fraudulent account statements removed from your credit report, and undertaking credit score repair if this is necessary. Most importantly, this type of service can provide you with the knowledge and tools to restore order in your financial life and protect yourself against any future incidents.
Speaking of protecting yourself, there is no greater measure against identity theft than prevention. As we noted from the beginning of this discussion, sometimes identity theft simply happens regardless of how aggressively you’ve acted to protect yourself.
That said, there are still plenty of things you can do to reduce your risk. From avoiding suspicious looking emails to strong password management; from taking precautions when using public WiFi to simply opening and carefully discarding your snail mail, we offer ten tips for how to protect yourself against identity theft.