Identity theft is a very real possibility for most adults, no matter where you are or what your finances look like. With cyber attacks becoming more sophisticated, fraudsters are gaining access to sensitive consumer information and using it to open credit lines, apply for government benefits and more.
The worst part is that identity theft is notoriously hard to prove and combat. But fortunately, it is not as difficult to prevent.
These 11 steps to take if your identity has been stolen will help you minimize the financial damage. However, many of these steps are also useful even if you have not been the victim of identity theft, since they can help keep your sensitive information safe from hackers and other criminals.
1. Sign Up Fraud Alerts
Signing up for fraud alerts is an important step to take even if your identity has not been stolen. However, if you suspect your private information (Social Security Number, date of birth, etc.) has been compromised, let all of the credit bureaus know ASAP.
There are three different credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Once you contact one credit bureau, it should let the others know, but it is a good idea to call the other two anyway.
Fraud alerts last a year. When they’re in place, it’s difficult for someone to open an account in your name. There’s an extended fraud alert that you can request and that lasts seven years.
2. Request a Credit Freeze
You should also place a freeze on your credit report through each of the three credit bureaus. This security freeze prevents the bureaus from giving anyone access to information about your credit history, unless you explicitly approve it or remove the freeze.
Freezing your credit helps a lot after identity theft, but it is a good idea to freeze your credit even if your information is safe. Since most lenders run a “hard” credit check when you apply for a loan or open a line of credit, freezing your credit will prevent anyone from opening an account in your name.
Just be sure to temporarily disable the freeze if you want to open a credit account yourself.
3. Request New Credit Cards
If your wallet has been stolen or you have misplaced your cards, it’s important to lock your old cards immediately. You can usually do this easily through your credit card’s bank app on a smartphone, or through the bank’s website. Additionally, call your credit card company to report the cards missing or stolen. Your company may have extra fraud protection they can offer.
4. Contact Your Banks
Contact your banks and other companies that may have been affected. For example, you may have an account at a local jewelry store or furniture maker, and they should be alerted so they can take extra precautions if anyone tries to access said account. While a police report helps when dealing with creditors, it is not always necessary.
5. Fix Your Credit
If your identity has been stolen and was used fraudulently, your credit score may have dropped due to the fraudster taking out multiple loans or opening cards in your name.
Fortunately, you can rebuild your credit in the long run. The sooner you alert the credit bureaus, the sooner your score will go back to normal. Request a free credit report and dispute all the charges that don’t belong to you. Use your free yearly credit report to monitor your financial wellness.
6. Contact Debt Collectors
Sometimes, people only learn that their identity has been stolen when they receive a call from a debt collector. If this happens to you, get as much information as possible from them about any loans that were taken out in your name. Store copies of everything safely. Write a formal letter to them requesting that they stop collecting debts you actually don’t owe, and contact the lender to explain what happened.
7. Close your Accounts
Sometimes, identity theft can be so hard to combat that you may need a more drastic solution. Where possible, close the accounts that may have been compromised, since you don’t know where the information has been shared. Closing the accounts prevents theft from another avenue. You may also choose to freeze the accounts instead of closing them.
8. Change Your PINs
In this digital age, people are pressured to readily give out information. This makes it easy for thieves to obtain data from emails, public WiFi and other sources that most consumers don’t think twice about using. If your identity was stolen, you’ll need to change every PIN and password that you have used.
In general, you should not use public computers or public WiFi to access your bank, loan or credit card accounts. Be careful even while at places that seem safe, such as banks.
9. Contact the Social Security Administration
You may feel that your social security number has been compromised. Even if you aren’t sure that this is so, you should protect yourself. Let your local social security office know about the fraud.
10. Consider a Credit Card With Extra Protection
Credit card companies offer cards with a wide range of features that slow thieves down. Ensure that the card you choose has common credit card security features, such as PINs. These help to prevent fraud. You wouldn’t want your efforts to rebuild your credit to be thwarted due to identity theft.
The best secured credit cards with fraud protection may come with other defenses. For example, some banks send a text alert the second a transaction is completed using your card. That lets you know immediately if a stranger is misusing it.
Many cards also come with “dark web monitoring,” which lets you know if your information has shown up on the dark web and can even tell you what piece of information it was.
11. Contact the IRS
If you are worried about the identity thief using your information in tax-related fraud, you should contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). This will help prevent someone from filing taxes in your name to potentially receive a refund.
Sometimes the IRS may actually inform you about a suspicious return. If you know you didn’t file it, let them know as soon as you can. If you’ve tried to e-file and you received an error message about duplicate Social Security Numbers. it is a sign that an identity thief may be at work.