With so many purchases being made online these days — and with more people using credit cards to buy things at retail locations — it’s surprising we don’t hear about massive data breaches every day. But alas, ID theft is an all-too-frequent occurrence, so it couldn’t hurt to know in advance the steps to take to minimize the damage.
The folks at the Federal Trade Commission have created a comprehensive guide called Taking Back: What to do if your identity is stolen [here’s the PDF] that not only provides detailed information but also sample letters, forms and contact info for various private and federal agencies.
But here are the basics everyone should know…
IF YOU KNOW YOUR IDENTITY HAS BEEN COMPROMISED:
1. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports, and review your credit reports.
Contact any of the three consumer reporting companies (TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)) to place a fraud alert on your credit report.
“You only need to contact one of the three companies to place an alert,” writes the FTC. “The company you call is required to contact the other two, which will place an alert on their versions of your report, too. If you do not receive a confirmation from a company, you should contact that company directly to place a fraud alert.”
The fraud report entitles you to one free copy of your credit report from each bureau. Check those reports for inquiries from companies you haven’t contacted, accounts you didn’t open, and debts on your accounts that you can’t explain.
If you find fraudulent or inaccurate information, get it removed.
2. Close the accounts that you know, or believe, have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
Call each company with whom you have a possibly compromised account and speak to someone in the security or fraud department. Follow up in writing, and include copies (NOT originals) of supporting documents.
“It’s important to notify credit card companies and banks in writing,” says the FTC. “Send your letters by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can document what the company received and when. Keep a file of your correspondence and enclosures.”
If the identity thief has made charges or debits on your accounts, or has fraudulently opened accounts, ask the company for the forms to dispute those transactions.
Once you have resolved the dispute with the company, request a letter stating that the company has closed the disputed accounts and has discharged the fraudulent debts.
3. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
You can file a complaint with the FTC using the online complaint form; or call the FTC’s Identity Theft Hotline, toll-free: 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338); TTY: 1-866-653-4261; or write Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580. Be sure to call the Hotline to update your complaint if you have any additional information or problems.
Sharing your identity theft complaint with the FTC can help law enforcement track down identity thieves. The FTC can refer victims’ complaints to other government agencies and companies for further action, as well as investigate companies for violations of laws the agency enforces.
4. File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place.
Call your local police department and tell them that you want to file a report about your identity theft. Ask them if you can file the report in person. If you cannot, ask if you can file a report over the Internet or telephone.
If the police are reluctant to take your report, ask to file a “Miscellaneous Incident” report, or try another jurisdiction, like your state police. You also can check with your state Attorney General’s office to find out if state law requires the police to take reports for identity theft. Check the Blue Pages of your telephone directory for the phone number or check www.naag.org for a list of state Attorneys General.
The FTC has also created its own website dedicated to providing information for victims of ID theft. It’s one of those sites you should probably have bookmarked — but hope you never have to look at.