Stolen Identity? Take These Recovery Steps

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

If you believe that 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 when it comes to protecting your credit file are a credit freeze, fraud alert, and a credit lock.

Credit Freezes

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, creditors will only be able to access your account if you unfreeze it for a specific time period or for a specific company or person. A credit freeze lasts indefinitely, though 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. However, under federal law as of September 21, 2018, placing and lifting a credit freeze is free for everyone, no matter where you live. (Learn more about credit freezes, including how to set one up, in What's a Credit Freeze and When Should I Use One?)

Fraud Alerts

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 that you might become a victim. This alert will be placed in your file for 90 days. (Under federal law, beginning September 21, 2018, an initial alert will last one year.) When there's an alert 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 that you did not request (so-called "prescreened offers").
  • Active duty alert. If you are on active military duty, you can add an active duty alert to your file. This 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 are 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 at the same time, though that won't do you much good. If you're going to pick one or the other, in most cases, it's better to pick a freeze.(Read about the difference between a credit freeze and a fraud alert.)

Credit Locks

Another option to consider is a credit lock, which is similar to a credit freeze. But credit lock services typically cost a monthly fee, while a credit freeze is a one-time fee. Also, credit freezes are regulated by state law, as well as federal law. Credit locks, on the other hand, are governed by a contract between you and the credit bureau. You'll like 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. (Read about the difference between a credit freeze and a credit lock.)

2. Review your credit reports.

Get copies of your credit report from each of the credit bureaus. 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. Ask the credit reporting agencies not to include information related to the identity theft in your credit report. (Learn about disputing inaccurate information 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 IdentityTheft.gov to report the identity theft, get a recovery plan, and get an Identity Theft Report. At 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 to send 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.

In many cases, you’ll be able to use an Identity Theft Report instead of a police report to clear up credit issues related to identity theft. Still, in certain cases, it may be helpful to have 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 www.identitytheft.gov).

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 cannot provide the information to any credit bureau after receiving such a request.

6. Deal with debt collectors.

While you are handling your identity theft case, debt collectors may 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 that you 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 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 www.ssa.gov/myaccount 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.

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 identity theft information, visit the FTC's identity theft website at www.identitytheft.gov.

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 of the rights and the remedies available to you under federal and state law.

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