Stolen Identity? Take These Recovery Steps

Here's a checklist of the recovery steps you need to take if your identity has been stolen.

Updated by , Attorney · University of Denver Sturm College of Law

If you believe you're a victim of identity theft or fear that you might become one because your sensitive personal informationlike your Social Security number, birth date, address, and driver's license numberwas stolen, you should consider taking these steps immediately.

1. Place a credit freeze, fraud alert, or credit lock on your credit file. (Hint: You should probably pick a freeze.)

A few options for protecting your credit file, including your credit report and associated credit score, are a credit freeze, fraud alert, and a credit lock.

How Credit Freezes Work

A "credit freeze" prevents a credit reporting company, like Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion, from releasing your credit information to a third party. Once your credit file is under a credit freeze, potential creditors can only access your account if you unfreeze it for a specific time or for a specific company or person. So, a freeze prevents lenders from issuing new credit based on what's in your file. A credit freeze lasts indefinitely, but in a few states, it expires after seven years.

To freeze your file with the three major credit reporting agencies, you have to initiate a freeze with each agency, and, in the past, you typically had to pay a small fee depending on your state's laws. But under federal law as of September 21, 2018, placing and lifting a credit freeze is free for everyone, no matter where you live.

How Fraud Alerts Work

When you place a fraud alert on your credit file with the three major credit bureaus, a creditor has to take extra steps to verify the identity of a person requesting credit before proceeding with the transaction. After you request a fraud alert at one of the three bureaus, your fraud alert will be automatically added at the other two companies.

Here are the different types of fraud alerts:

  • Initial alert. You can request an initial alert even if you merely think you might become a victim. Under federal law, beginning September 21, 2018, an initial alert will last one year. (Alerts used to last 90 days.) When an alert is on your file, a business has to verify your identity before issuing credit. You can get one free copy of your credit report from each bureau when you place this kind of alert.
  • Extended alert. If you're a victim of identity theft, you can send the credit bureau an identity theft report and request that it place an extended alert in your file. You can get an identity theft report by reporting the identity theft to the FTC. Once an extended fraud alert is in place, a creditor can't grant new credit in your name unless it first takes reasonable steps to confirm your identity by contacting you directly at the telephone number you provided or by another reasonable method you've specified. The extended alert remains in place for seven years, and you can get two free copies of your credit report from each bureau during the next 12 months. In addition, for five years, each bureau must exclude you from lists that it prepares for creditors or insurers with offers of credit or insurance you didn't request (so-called "prescreened offers").
  • Active duty alert. You can add an active duty alert to your file if you're on active military duty. This kind of alert is similar to the other alerts, but it remains in place for 12 months, the exclusion from prescreened lists lasts for two years, and you're not entitled to a free credit report.

A fraud alert provides less protection than a credit freeze. You can use both a freeze and an alert simultaneously. However, if you're going to pick one or the other, in most cases, it's better to pick a freeze.

How Credit Locks Work

Another option to consider is a credit lock, which is similar to a credit freeze. However, credit lock services typically cost a monthly fee. Also, state and federal laws regulate credit freezes.

On the other hand, credit locks are governed by a contract between you and the credit bureau. You'll likely get better protections under state and federal law than under a contract drafted by the credit bureau. So, again, a credit freeze is a better option.

2. Review your credit reports.

Get copies of your credit report from each credit bureau at Look for all possible signs of trouble: accounts you didn't open, inquiries you didn't initiate, and defaults and delinquencies you didn't cause.

Also, check your identifying information carefully. Make sure that all your personal information, including name, address, and Social Security number, is correct and that there are no fraudulent accounts or inquiries.

File disputes about any mistakes or fraudulent information you find and ask the credit reporting agencies not to include information related to the identity theft in your credit report.

3. Report identity theft to the FTC and get a step-by-step recovery plan.

Go to the FTC's website to report the identity theft, get a recovery plan, and get an identity theft report. On the website, you'll have to answer some questions about your situation, and then the site will use that information to create a personal recovery plan for you. The site will take you through each recovery step, update your plan as necessary, track your progress, and pre-fill out forms and letters for you.

The website also provides template letters for disputing credit card charges, disputing ATM/debit card transactions, and for sending to credit bureaus regarding identity theft, as well as valuable information about what to do after your identity is stolen, other possible steps you should take, and specific instructions for certain accounts such as utilities, phones, government benefits, checking accounts, etc.

4. File a police report.

To get a police report, go to your local police office with:

  • a copy of your FTC identity theft report
  • a government-issued ID with a photo
  • proof of your address (mortgage statement, rental agreement, or utilities bill)
  • any other proof you have of the theft (bills, IRS notices, etc.) and
  • FTC's Memo to Law Enforcement (you can get this document at

Tell the police someone stole your identity, and you need to file a report. Be sure to ask for a copy of the report, which you might need to complete other steps on the FTC website or for other purposes.

5. Call the companies where fraud has already happened.

If any of your accounts have been tampered with or new accounts have been opened in your name, call those companies. Ask to speak to someone in the security or fraud department and close or freeze any accounts that have been affected.

Ask businesses that have provided identity theft-related information to credit bureaus to stop providing the information. You generally must send the business an Identity Theft Report at the address that it specifies for this purpose and identify the information related to identity theft. The business normally can't provide the information to any credit bureau after receiving such a request.

6. Deal with debt collectors.

While handling your identity theft case, debt collectors might ask you to pay outstanding bills from fraudulently activated credit accounts. Inform the debt collector by phone and in writing that you are a victim of identity theft and are not responsible for the unpaid bill. Be sure to include copies of documents, such as a police report and identity theft report, that demonstrate that you are the victim of identity theft.

The collector then has to tell the creditor that the debt might be the result of identity theft. The collector also must send you information that validates the debt. Once you receive the information, send the collector a written dispute of the debt and a copy of your identity theft report. Send a copy to the creditor, too. Ordinarily, this will give you a complete defense to the debt, which you shouldn't pay.

In response to your information, the collector might stop collection efforts. If not, it might be helpful to consult with an attorney. You should definitely contact an attorney if you're notified of a legal action, like a lawsuit, against you based on debts incurred by the identity thief.

7. Check for fraudulent use of your Social Security number.

Get a copy of your Social Security benefits statement at to find out whether anyone is using your number. If you notice fraudulent use of your Social Security number, contact the SSA's fraud hotline at 800-269-0271.

You should also file your taxes as soon as you can—before a thief tries to claim a fraudulent refund.

8. Notify any other creditors or important parties about the theft.

For example, you should notify the post office if you think the thief filed a phony change of address form and ask utility and phone companies to remove fraudulent charges.

Where to Get More Information

For comprehensive information about identity theft, visit the FTC's website at

When to Talk to a Lawyer

If you need help straightening out your finances, dealing with debt collection agencies, or getting credit bureaus to remove fraudulent information from your credit report after an identity thief opens new accounts in your name, consider talking to an identity theft lawyer, a debt settlement lawyer, or a consumer protection lawyer.

An attorney can also advise you of all rights and the remedies available under federal and state law.

Talk to a Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Get Professional Help

Talk to a Consumer Protection attorney.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you