Have you just become one of the more than 17 million Americans who fall victim to identity theft every year? Are you wondering what to do now that your identity has been stolen?
If so, don't panic. You're going to have to do several things right away, but each will help you put your life back in order, and not taking these steps will only prolong your ordeal.
Don't talk about your identity being stolen
The first thing you might want to do if you find out your identity has been stolen is to tell all your friends about it. But before you post your misfortune on Facebook or Twitter, keep in mind that letting the world know you're a victim could make you even more vulnerable to exploitation by identity thieves.
"Advertising that you're a victim lets other people know that a lot of your information is out there," said Neil Chase, formerly an expert with the Tempe, Ariz.-based identity-protection service LifeLock. "You want to be careful about that."
Chase said people who have had their identities stolen are more susceptible to online frauds, such as email phishing scams and credit-monitoring scams. Broadcasting that your identity has been stolen might increase your risk of attracting these kinds of fraudulent solicitations.
Place a fraud alert on your credit file
To get your life — and your credit — back in order, you'll need to take charge in the days and weeks following an identity theft. The first thing to do is to call one of the three major credit reporting agencies— Equifax, Experian or TransUnion — and request that it place a fraud alert on your credit file. Whichever company you contact will notify the other two credit bureaus about the alert.
If you place a fraud alert on your file, businesses must then verify your identity before issuing credit in your name. This means you'll get a call if a criminal uses your name to open a fraudulent account.
While you have the credit bureau on the phone, make sure the contact information on your credit file is up to date. You can renew the initial fraud alert on your account for free after 90 days.
There's also a fourth, lesser-known credit bureau that you may want to contact when placing a fraud alert on your file — Innovis. This company keeps track of credit information that the big three don't bother with, such as utility bills and cellphone payments. Issuing an alert with Innovis could prevent a lot of headaches for identity-theft victims.
Request a credit freeze
If you're truly worried about your credit, or have a lot of assets to protect, consider placing a freeze on your credit file. Freezing your credit will make it even more difficult for identity thieves to open up new accounts or access credit in your name. You will still be able to open legitimate lines of credit even when your credit file is frozen.
To freeze your credit, you'll need to contact each of the three major credit bureaus individually. Report that your identity has been stolen and that you'd like to freeze your credit. You'll likely need to pay a fee to each bureau, which is determined by state law but typically costs between $3 and $11.
While fraud alerts need to be renewed every 90 days, credit freezes make your credit report inaccessible to creditors (and criminals) for much longer — usually until you decide to lift the freeze on your file.
Request your credit reports
Now is the time to assess the damage done to your credit by identity thieves. To begin the process, request a free credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus. Placing a fraud alert on your file entitles you to a free report, but in fact every U.S. resident is allowed one free annual report from each credit agency.
Once you have your credit report in hand, you can begin setting things to rights. To dispute any errors you find on your credit reports (such as accounts you didn't open or erroneous personal information), first create an identity-theft report (see the next step) and then write to each of the three credit reporting companies explaining the errors.
You'll also need to contact the fraud departments of each business that reported a fraudulent transaction on your existing account, as well as each business that reported a new account opened fraudulently in your name.
For an in-depth guide on how to dispute fraudulent charges on your accounts, see the FTC's online tutorial on dealing with identity theft.
Create an identity-theft report
Disputing fraudulent charges and accounts will be much easier if you've put together an identity-theft report. To create an identity-theft report, you'll first need to submit a formal complaint to the FTC detailing the theft.
With your FTC identity-theft affidavit in hand, you can next file a police report in the municipality where you reside, or where the theft took place. The police report and affidavit together comprise your identity-theft report, and will aid in the battles that may come. Having a theft report will also enable you to place an extended fraud alert on your credit, which will last for seven years instead of the requisite 90 days.
Make sure it doesn't happen again
Anyone who has had his or her identity stolen won't want to repeat the experience. Luckily, there are several steps you can take to prevent your identity from being stolen again. Chase said one of the easiest ways to do this is to cut back on paper documentation of your personal information.
Chase's advice? Stop receiving paper account statements in the mail and instead opt to view information about your various accounts online. If you do receive paper statements, shred them before throwing them in the trash.
Also keep in mind that going over your bank statements and credit reports with a fine-toothed comb isn't an effective way to keep track of your financial accounts in real time. To get a better sense of what's happening with your accounts, you'll need to monitor them more frequently than once a billing cycle.
"Watch your accounts online," Chase advises, "That way, if something happens that the bank doesn't catch, you're going to catch it sooner than if you wait for a statement or credit report."
While you're online, you should also consider strengthening the passwords for your various accounts, particularly online bank accounts and email accounts, where personal and financial information might be stored.