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Has your identity been stolen? Act quickly to protect yourself from long-term damage. Freeze your credit or set fraud alerts on your credit reports ASAP, and report the incident to the FTC, who’ll provide you with a step-by-step recovery plan.
Fraud and identity theft are big problems. More than one million U.S. consumers are victims of fraud each year, and more than 250,000 are victims of identity theft, according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Credit-related fraud usually occurs when someone uses your existing credit card accounts to make purchases. These criminals may be using a physical credit card that has been lost or stolen, or simply the credit card number and other information on the account.
Credit card companies have entire units devoted to identifying spending and usage patterns that can indicate potential fraud. In some cases, your card issuer’s fraud department may contact you about unusual charges or freeze your account before things get out of hand. Thankfully, the major credit card networks all have zero liability policies, so cardholders do not pay for fraudulent charges if the problem is caught soon enough.
Identity theft is more difficult to identify unless you monitor your credit reports regularly and notify authorities about any suspicious new accounts. True identity theft occurs when a fraudster pretends to be you and uses your personal information — your name, address, Social Security number, etc. — to open lines of credit in your name. To find out the hard way, you’ll start receiving bills and other mail related to accounts that you did not open.
Like many financial problems, the best way to deal with fraud and identity theft is to be aware of the danger and take steps to prevent it.
If you’ve already had your identity and your credit preyed upon by a scam artist, then the time for preventative action has passed.
Now it’s time to play defense and do some damage control. Thankfully, there are extensive protections afforded to identity theft victims under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). The following are four very important steps to follow for anyone who has been a victim of identity theft.
The most effective way to prevent any additional fraudulent accounts from being opened in your name is to place a credit freeze on each of your three credit reports (you can also use credit locks to achieve a similar effect).
Credit freezes are free, thanks to the federal Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act of 2018. However, it’s up to you to request a credit freeze with each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) individually. Fraud alerts are another option, but credit freezes are a stronger method of protection.
A credit freeze takes your credit report out of circulation and prevents new creditors from receiving a copy of your report without your permission. In fact, after placing a credit freeze you actually have to “thaw” your credit reports, courtesy of a PIN you are issued by each credit bureau, before you apply for new credit. A credit freeze will make it impossible for a fraudster to open any additional accounts in your name.
If the incident involved fraudulent charges on an existing credit account, then you should contact the card’s issuer to report the identity theft as soon as possible. You won’t be held liable for fraudulent charges, though it may take some time to resolve the problem (depending on the situation and the issuer).
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Filing an identity theft report should be near the very top of your priority list if you’re a victim of identity theft. Any fraud report or police report which is officially filed with a law enforcement agency is considered an identity theft report. The report you file will be very helpful in getting any fraudulent accounts or collections removed from your credit reports.
You’ll likely want to start by filing a report with the Federal Trade Commission. Head to IdentityTheft.gov, then click “Get Started” and the site will guide you through the rest of the process. You’ll be asked for information related to the incident, typically including, but not limited to:
Once you’ve submitted as much of the requested information as possible, you’ll get a custom identity theft recovery plan. Each step will feature detailed instructions, and you can tweak the plan and track your progress on the IdentityTheft.gov website.
The typical FTC-provided recovery plan may be able to help you:
Because identity theft is a crime, it may feel natural to report the incident to the police right off the bat, but it’s not always necessary. You’ll want to submit a report to the FTC first regardless.
Once you’ve filed your report at IdentityTheft.gov, your recovery plan should let you know whether you should contact the police, depending on your situation.
Bring your FTC report to the station if you’re planning to file a police report; it’s a helpful measure of legitimacy.
Something to keep in mind, however, is that police typically have a lot going on. You can also try contacting your state attorney general if the police aren’t interested in taking your report. And besides, as long as you’ve notified the FTC of the identity theft, the agency will give you a set of instructions to follow to help protect yourself now and in the future.
If the fraudulent accounts show up on your credit reports, as they often do in the case of true name fraud, you’ll want to submit disputes to the three major credit bureaus.
You should submit 609 dispute letters for any suspicious accounts, which will force the credit bureaus to attempt to verify them. Sending these letters shouldn’t require too much effort; you can use a sample letter to make it quick and easy.
Include a copy of your official identity theft report, which you may have filed with a law enforcement agency, along with your disputes. Per the FCRA, the credit bureaus have to block any fraudulent accounts from your credit reports within just four short business days.
If the accounts can’t be verified they’ll be removed from your credit reports, but take note that bill collectors may still be coming after you for payments. The accounts won’t be on your credit reports, but that doesn’t mean they’re removed from all records, everywhere.
Identity theft can wreak havoc on your credit scores and your overall financial wellbeing, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world. Credit card issuers typically adhere to $0 fraud liability policies, and as long as you file an identity theft report with the FTC, you shouldn’t find it too difficult to dispute accounts that are genuinely fraudulent.
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