Identity Theft: You Can't Really Do Much About It (But Here's What You Can Do)

You can’t really stop identity theft from happening. So many entities have your credit card numbers, social security numbers, date of birth, and address, that it is more or less inevitable that we will all have our identities stolen at some point. If you are lucky, you will just get a credit card cloned. If you aren’t so lucky–like many people I see in my line of work–someone will start opening accounts, buying houses, or doing other nasty things in your name.

And there really isn’t anything you can do to stop it.

There are, however, things you can do to minimize the effects if and when your identity is stolen. Follow the jump for some tips.

  • Check your credit reports at least once per year. Check it more, if you like, although it will cost you a small fee.
  • Keep a close eye on all your bank and–especially–on your credit card accounts. Check your balances at least once a month (or better, every few days) so you catch fraudulent charges as soon as possible.
  • If you do find a fraudulent charge, notify your bank, close the account, and file a police report immediately.
  • Filing a police report is actually very important, since shortly after those accounts go to collection, they will probably show up on your credit report(s). You may need a police report to clear your credit report.
  • If you notice any fraudulent charges on your credit report, dispute them.

My officemate and fellow consumer lawyer, John Goolsby, has a great set of guidelines for identity theft victims that you can find at Caveat Emptor. What it boils down to is keeping your credit reports clear so that you can go on with your financial life as usual. And keep a tape recorder handy if you can record incoming phone calls in case the debt collectors start calling you.

If you take care of your credit reports, those fraudulently-opened accounts, houses, cars, whatever, will eventually be foreclosed on, repossessed, or charged off, and at some point (possibly years down the line), you won’t be associated with them any more. As long as they are not on your credit report, you won’t have to deal with anything but the stack of mail relating to things your identity thief is purchasing in your name. Unpleasant, yes, but something you can live with, at least. SAM GLOVER

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  1. Lewis says:

    Probably also not a bad idea to keep a few hundred $ cash for essentials somewhere reasonably safe in your house.

    If you are a victim of ID theft and find your bank account drained and/or your credit cards temporarily frozen, etc., you may need to pick up some food, gas, etc. while you get the situation straightened out.

  2. dohtem says:

    Never thought about the police report thing (though it makes perfect sense). Good tip.

  3. cgmaetc says:

    I don’t understand how someone who can’t qualify for a house on their own credit can have their identity stolen and then the thieves can go buy a house… maybe the problem isn’t just the thieves, but the credit scoring system as well.

  4. Trackback says:

    [Consumerist crosspost] You can’t really stop identity theft from happening. So many entities have your credit card numbers, social security numbers, date of birth, and address, that it is more or less inevitable that we will all have our identities stolen at some point.

  5. UnStatusTheQuo says:

    Someone stole my sister’s identity while I was in law school. Being the “gifted with free use of Lexis and Westlaw” student I was, and using the address that Gateway had on record that the fool had a computer shipped to, I tracked down the PIN of the property, the registered owner, and then informed the State Police.

    When the officer arrived, it was pretty interesting to see his reaction as I took him through the steps of finding the perps. He looked shocked that I was able to get that far, and said he would be notifying the proper authority in Detroit to go investigate the address and potential criminals.

    We of course never heard what happened, but it was at least a little fun tracking the criminals down and leading the cops right to them.

    Honestly, finding the criminals was easier than cleaning up the credit report from the three-headed hellspawn known as Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian.

  6. ibjoeralt says:

    Re this tip:
    Check your credit reports at least once per year. Check it more, if you like, although it will cost you a small fee.

    If you check each of the 3 credit reporting agency once a year with your annual free credit check, but space out the checks to every fourth month, you will have a better chance of finding any problems AND not have to pay a fee for checking more than once a year.

  7. phrygian says:

    On a related note: former IBM employees should be aware that the company “lost” data tapes containing the personal information of (an undisclosed number of) former employees. The loss occurred the end of February and I just got notified earlier this week. So, if you’ve worked for IBM in the past and haven’t received a letter from, you might want to call them and see if you are affected. They’re offering free credit monitoring to those who might be at risk for identity theft, but I wish they could have just kept the data safer to begin with…

  8. virgilstar says:

    @phrygian:
    Same thing happened a while back for ABN-AMRO mortgage customers. They did the same – enrolled everyone in free credit-monitoring, but then made a point of publicising it! Now, all the thieves need to do is sit on their hands for a year, and just assume that after the free credit monitoring is over, at least a certain percentage of folks will not bother to pony up the fees to continue the service. I decided not to be one of those folks, and continued paying the monitoring fees.

    Maybe this is all part of a giant conspiracy between big companies and credit-monitoring agencies? “pssst… hey Transunion… we’ll lose some tapes, and then use your service, giving you a bunch of customers after the free period is over”.

  9. romulus says:

    I had a weird false charge on one of my minor credit cards a year or so ago. Was never quite sure if they were identity thefts or creditor screw-ups, but either way they ended up on my statement. It came to my attention via being called and told that I was both overdue and had incurred many late fees, when I had zeroed my balance months earlier and hadn’t used the card since.

    It took forever to get it resolved with the credit provider. Their offshored customer support was useless, and the dispute process was very slipshod, amounting to “here’s the slip, the matter is closed, you owe” — even though the slip clearly wasn’t signed in my name.

    Anyway, one of the points one of the CSRs tried to make to me was that the charges were too small (2@$15) to be believably identity theft. If they were going to defraud with my account, they would have defrauded by a lot more, was the reasoning. I shot back that it seems to me a great way to commit identity theft is to try and slip it under the radar.

    Bottom line: no odd charge is too small to be a case of fraud, so don’t just look for big glaring ones. I may never have caught that one, in fact, if it had been a card I used a lot. I would have just kept paying.

  10. a_m_m_b says:

    Perhaps ID Theft would be less common if it had the same penalty as horse thievery used to. . . .

  11. ninjapoodles says:

    It’s been three years now since we did away with credit cards. We haven’t missed them. We use debit cards attached to our bank accounts, which are self-limiting as far as the amount of damage that can be done, and the bank stands behind us in the eventuality of fraudulent charges.

    We’ve also managed a lot more personal financial responsibility since trashing the credit cards. Once those were paid off, we used the money that once went toward the cards to apply toward paying off the equity line of credit (also stupid) that we had, then when that was zeroed out, added that former monthly payment in toward our car payment, and paid that off years early…next up is the mortgage. We could conceivably be 100% debt-free in the next 5 years, and own our home outright.

  12. Boulderdash says:

    Over-the-counter purchases:
    When you receive a new credit card, instead of signing the back, write:
    “PHOTO ID AVAILABLE ON REQUEST”
    In this way, if you lose your credit card, the thief will not know how your signature. Instead, show your drivers license as proof of identity (provided the salesperson does his/her checks first).