The road to recovery: What to do when your identity is stolen

In a world where information changes hands with the simple click of a mouse, our identities are now vulnerable to a nearly infinite range of threats. If your identity is compromised, you may notice unrecognizable charges on your credit card statement or checks written in your name that you don’t remember writing. Or you might receive a call from your credit union with questions about suspicious charges or withdrawals. Learning that your identity may have been stolen can be a frightening experience, but the following steps will help to get your identity back in your hands.

Take action: Urgent first steps

If your identity has been stolen, there are several steps you should take immediately.

1. Contact credit bureaus. Because criminals can use your identity to open accounts in your name, immediately contact one of the three primary credit bureaus (EquifaxExperianTransUnion) and request that the bureau place a free fraud alert on your file. The bureau you contact is required to notify the other two about the alert. Margie Johnson, Vice President of Compliance for SAC Federal Credit Union, also recommends that you request a security freeze with each of the three bureaus. The freeze prevents these bureaus from releasing your credit report without your consent.

2. Check your credit report. When you contact the credit bureaus, request a copy of your credit report. Confirm that your personal information is correct and that all of the accounts listed were opened by you. If you find suspicious accounts on any of the reports, contact the creditors or financial institutions and close the accounts.

3. Contact existing creditors. If there was fraudulent activity on one of your existing accounts, contact the creditor and determine the best method of action for securing your information. In most cases, the best course of action is closing the account and opening a new account. If the activity was in a checking account, request that your credit union notify the check verification service.

Follow-up: Additional steps to stop thieves

After taking the steps listed above, complete these additional tasks.

1. Change your passwords. Although you might find fraudulent activity on just a credit card account, it’s impossible to know how much of your other information was compromised with an identity theft. To be safe, change any PINs and your online passwords on all of your accounts, but especially on financial accounts. This article has tips for creating a secure password.

2. Create an Identity Theft Report. Report the theft to the FTC and create an Identity Theft Report. To complete the report, the FTC asks that you contact your local authorities and file a report about the fraudulent activity tied to your identity. Be sure to have as much documentation as possible about the activity to help the police solve the case of your stolen identity.

3. Be proactive. ID theft is an experience you won’t want to encounter again. To minimize your chances of identity theft in the future, take some proactive measures to help protect your information. This article discusses advanced tips and tools for protecting your identity.

Inside an identity theft

The drill is always the same when you move. Even if you submit a change-of-address form with the post office and contact every account you can remember to inform them of your new address, certain pieces of mail inevitably trickle through to your prior address. No big deal, right? Wrong.

In one case, a new credit card from a seldom-used account was sent to an old address after the prior resident moved out of state. The new occupants used the card and opened several other accounts in the prior resident’s name. Margie Johnson, Vice President of Compliance for SAC Federal Credit Union, learned about the theft when she received a call from the California State Patrol. And it wasn’t just her identity that was stolen—multiple victims encountered the same fate.

“Identity theft is not a pleasant experience,” Johnson says. “Be proactive to prevent it from happening to you. You don’t need several credit cards. Be sure to put in a change of address with all of the merchants you do business with and always remember to closely monitor your monthly account statements and bills to ensure your change of address is reflected accurately. Don’t share your personal information, such as your full 9-digit Social Security number, with vendors that contact you.” She notes that if you contact a vendor (and therefore know for certain who you’re talking to), it’s likely safe to share this kind of information, but be wary of people who contact you. “If you think that the situation does not feel right, trust your instincts—don’t do it.”

Have you been the victim of identity theft? What steps did you take to reclaim your identity? Be sure to download our free checklist to ensure you covered the basics.