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 might even start when you receive a court summons for a crime you didn’t commit. Instances like these alert people to the fact that they’ve become a victim of identity theft.
In this article, you’ll learn ten red flags that indicate someone has stolen your identity.
What Is Identity Theft?
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. An identity thief might use stolen information to get access to credit, benefits, and bank accounts, or as identification when arrested for a crime.
Identity theft can occur anytime your personal information is lost or exposed. Some ways a thief can get your personal information include:
- loss or theft of a wallet, purse, or bag containing items like credit cards
- mail theft, or
- a security breach at an online website or service provider.
An identity thief could be living on your street, in a neighboring state, or even overseas (To find out how to protect yourself, see Top Ten Ways to Prevent Identity Theft.)
Signs of Identity Theft
Victims often don’t realize that someone is using their information for some time. But the earlier you detect identity theft, the easier and quicker it will be to recover. Here are ten signs that indicate your personal information has been compromised.
- You receive unexpected credit cards or account statements.
- You’re denied credit for no apparent reason. (Being denied credit might mean your credit score has dropped because an identity thief has opened new accounts in your name.)
- You receive calls or letters from debt collectors about loans you didn’t take out or other debts that aren’t yours.
- Your bills and bank statements don't arrive in the mail. 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—this could mean an identity thief has 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.
- You notice inaccuracies or unauthorized transactions on your credit reports. 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. You should also consider putting a freeze on your credit.
- You notice unusual charges on your credit card billing statement. (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.) Or someone authorizes electronic transfers or withdraws money from your bank or another financial account.
- You receive a call from your credit card company asking if you made any outstanding charges or large purchases at an unusual location.
- Someone uses your Social Security number to get a job or government benefits. (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.)
- You receive bills for medical services you didn’t receive. Or your health care plan won’t pay a legitimate medical claim because its records indicate you’ve reached your benefits limit.
- Someone files a tax return in your name. In this case, what likely happened is that an identity thief filed a return using 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're a victim of identity theft, go to the government’s website at IdentityTheft.gov to report the crime and get an identity theft report. Also, read Stolen Identity? Take These Recovery Steps.
When to Talk to an Attorney
For additional help, seek out advice from a consumer protection 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.