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Identity theft occurs when someone obtains your personal and/or financial information and uses it to assume your identity to make fraudulent transactions and purchases, open new lines of credit, or file false tax returns.
Recovering your identity will take time and require lots of paperwork, so create a system to keep yourself organized and tackle each task one step at a time.
Step one: Call the police. While it is unlikely law enforcement will investigate the case, an official identity theft report is usually required by other agencies to help you solve problems resulting from your ID theft.
Step two: Call one of the three major credit agencies. Have them place a free fraud alert on your credit file. That agency will then be legally bound to notify the other two agencies to do the same. This alert will warn potential creditors or lenders that you are an identity theft victim so that they can take extra steps to vet future applications for new credit.
You’ll also want to go a step further and place a freeze on your credit files with each of the three credit agencies. A freeze instructs the credit bureaus to prevent new creditors from viewing your credit report and score. With an identity theft police report, it’s free; without a report, it can cost up to $10 depending on your state. The caveat: A credit freeze also eliminates the possibility of you getting instant credit. You will need to give the agency permission to thaw your data, and in some cases pay a fee to lift it, which can take a few days depending on your state law.
Step three: Review your credit reports. When you file a fraud alert, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report from each of the three agencies. Look over all three reports for any unauthorized activity. Make sure to look not only at recent activity but your history as well. Just because you have now discovered some red flags doesn’t mean that these are the first.
If you see errors in your report, like wrong personal information, accounts you didn’t open or debts you didn’t incur, dispute those errors with each credit agency and the fraud department of each business reporting that inaccurate information. Provide a copy of your identity theft report to each credit agency and ask them to block all disputed information from appearing on your report. You’ll also want to ask the businesses you contact to send you copies of documents the identity thief used to open an account.
Step four: Notify relevant agencies. Once you know your Social Security number has been comprised, inform the Social Security Administration and report its misuse. If someone used your SNN to file a fraudulent tax refund or get a job, fill out and submit the Internal Revenue Service’s Identity Theft Affidavit form along with a copy of your police report and proof of your identity. If your financial accounts have been comprised as well, see “What should I do if I spot a suspicious charge on my debit or credit card?”
Step five: Go on the defensive. Go back to your report regularly to make sure no new suspicious credit activity has appeared as certain credit actions won’t show up immediately. Don’t get relaxed even after the identity theft issues have been resolved. “Continue to check, as thieves will sit on info and wait to use it,” says Neal O’Farrell, executive director of The Identity Theft Council.
For a step-by-step guide of how to resolve each specific type of ID theft, see the Federal Trade Commission’s Taking Charge paper.