"Identity theft" is the use of a person's confidential identifying information, without consent, for the thief's benefit, and to the victim's detriment. Identity theft can occur anytime your personal information is lost or exposed. An identity thief could be living on your street, in a neighboring state, or even overseas. Some ways a thief can get your personal information include:
An identity thief might use stolen information to access credit, benefits, and bank accounts or as identification when arrested for a crime. What are the first signs of identity theft? It might start with a phone call from a collection agency for a debt you don't recognize, or an unfamiliar entry might show up on your credit report when you try to qualify for a home mortgage. It could start when you receive a court summons for a crime you didn't commit.
Victims often don't realize that someone is using their information for a while. But the earlier you detect identity theft, the easier and quicker it will be to recover. Here are ten red flags that indicate someone has stolen your identity.
Getting statements or bills for accounts you didn't open indicates someone else is opening them in your name.
Being denied credit might mean your credit score has dropped because an identity thief has opened new accounts using your personal information.
If you start receiving calls about loans you didn't take out or other debts that aren't yours, inform the debt collector by phone and in writing that you're a victim of identity theft and that you're not responsible for the unpaid bill. Be sure to include copies of documents, such as a police report and Identity Theft Report (see below), that demonstrate that you're the victim of identity theft.
While many people get their bills online these days, if you usually get bills and statements through the mail—and suddenly don't get them anymore—an identity thief might have changed your address with the company or bank. Identity thieves still use old methods like stealing mail and dumpster diving to get their hands on important documents. An easily accessed mailbox, stuffed with envelopes, is an easy target for thieves. So pick up your mail regularly.
You can get one free credit report each year from the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—by going to AnnualCreditReport.com. It's generally a good idea to stagger your requests and get one report every four months so you can monitor them on an ongoing basis. Though, if you already suspect an identity thief is using your information to open new accounts, get all three reports at one time to see if the reports contain signs of identity theft, like inquiries that you didn't initiate and accounts you didn't open.
Even if the amounts are small, don't ignore them. An identity thief might be testing your account to see if charges will go through before attempting a large purchase.
If you aren't traveling, faraway charges are an indication of identity theft. And if you are traveling, leave your checkbook, Social Security card, and other unnecessary items in a safe place at home. If you take a laptop, smartphone, or another electronic device on your trip, make sure it's secure. It should be password-protected and have the latest Internet security software installed. Ask your hotel to recommend reputable Internet cafes or WiFi spots before you do any online connecting. Also, erase your online history after using a public computer
Check your Social Security benefits statement and if you find fraudulent use of your Social Security number, contact the Social Security Administration's fraud hotline at 800-269-0271.
Receiving bills for medical services you didn't receive is an indicator that someone else is using your personal information. Another sign of identity theft is if your health care plan won't pay a legitimate medical claim because its records indicate you've reached your benefits limit, but you know you haven't.
If someone else files a tax return in your name, that identity thief likely used your information to claim a fraudulent refund. To thwart tax-related identity theft, it's a good idea to file your tax return as early as possible in the tax year. To learn more, check out the IRS Taxpayer Guide to Identity Theft and read Identity Theft During Tax-Time: Protecting Yourself.
If you become the victim of identity theft, you should freeze your credit immediately with all three major credit bureaus. Also, go to the FTC's website IdentityTheft.gov to report the identity theft, get a recovery plan, and get an Identity Theft Report. 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.
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 some cases, it might be helpful to have a police report. And if any of your accounts have been tampered with or new accounts opened in your name, call those companies.
For additional help, seek out advice from a consumer protection or debt attorney. An attorney can assist you with straightening out your financial matters, dealing with debt collectors, or getting the credit reporting agencies to delete fraudulent information from your credit report after an identity thief gets credit in your name.