Identity Crisis - What to do if Your Identity is Stolen

"I don't remember charging those items. I've never even been in that store."

Maybe you never charged those items, but someone else did...someone who used your name and personal information to commit fraud. When an imposter co-opts your name, your Social Security number, your credit card number, or some other piece of your personal information for their use - in short, when someone appropriates your personal information without your knowledge - it's a crime, pure and simple.

The biggest problem? You may not know your identity's been stolen until you notice that something's amiss: you may get bills for a credit card account you never opened, your credit report may include debts you never knew you had, a billing cycle may pass without your receiving a statement, or you may see charges on your bills that you didn't sign for, didn't authorize, and don't know anything about.

Real People, Real Problems from ID Theft

These complaints were sent to the Federal Trade Commission:

"Someone used my Social Security number to get credit in my name... I have been turned down for jobs, credit, and refinancing offers. This is stressful and embarrassing. I want to open my own business, but it may be impossible with this unresolved problem hanging over my head."

"My elderly parents are victims of credit fraud. We don't know what to do. Someone applied for credit cards in their name and charged nearly $20,000. Two of the card companies have cleared my parents' name, but the third has turned the account over to a collection agency. The agency doesn't believe Mom and Dad didn't authorize the account. What can we do to stop the debt collector?"

"Someone is using my name and Social Security number to open credit card accounts. All the accounts are in collections. I had no idea this was happening until I applied for a mortgage. Because these 'bad' accounts showed up on my credit report, I didn't get the mortgage."

First Things First

If someone has stolen your identity, the Federal Trade Commission recommends that you take three actions immediately.

First, contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus. Tell them to flag your file with a fraud alert including a statement that creditors should call you for permission before they open any new accounts in your name.

Report fraud Order credit report Web site
Equifax (800) 525-6285 (800) 685-1111
Experian (888) EXPERIAN (397-3742) (888) EXPERIAN (397-3742)
Trans Union (800) 680-7289 (800) 916-8800

It's a good idea to order a copy of your credit report from the three credit bureaus every year to check on their accuracy and whether they include only those debts and loans you've incurred. This could be very important if you're considering a major purchase, such as a house or a car. A credit bureau may charge you up to $8 for a copy of your report.

Second, file a police report. Keep a copy in case your creditors need proof of the crime.

Third, contact the creditors for any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. Ask to speak with someone in the security or fraud department and follow up in writing. Following up with a letter is one of the procedures spelled out in the Fair Credit Billing Act for resolving errors on credit billing statements, including charges or electronic fund transfers that you have not made.

Identity Thefts Brochure

Next, Take Control

Although identity thieves can wreak havoc on your personal finances, there are some things you can do to take control of the situation. Here's how to handle some of the most common forms of identity theft.

If an identity thief has stolen your mail for access to new credit cards, bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers and tax information or falsified change-of-address forms, (s)he has committed a crime. Report it to your local postal inspector.

If you discover that an identity thief has changed the billing address on an existing credit card account, close the account. When you open a new account, ask that a password be used before any inquiries or changes can be made on the account. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. Avoid the same information and numbers when you create a Personal Identification Number (PIN).

To thwart an identity thief who may pick through your trash to capture your personal information, tear or shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, bank checks and statements, expired charge cards, and credit offers you get in the mail.

If you have reason to believe that an identity thief has accessed your bank accounts, checking account or ATM card, close the accounts immediately. When you open new accounts, insist on password-only access. If your checks have been stolen or misused, stop payment. If your ATM card has been lost, stolen or otherwise compromised, cancel the card and get another with a new PIN.

If an identity thief established new phone service in your name and is making long-distance calls, making unauthorized calls that appear to come from - and are billed to - your cellular phone, or using your calling card and PIN, contact your service provider immediately to cancel your account and calling card. Get new accounts and new PINs.

If it appears that someone is using your Social Security number when applying for a job, get in touch with the Social Security Administration to verify the accuracy of your reported earnings and that your name is reported correctly. Call (800) 772-1213 to check your Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate.

If you suspect that your name or Social Security number is being used by an identity thief to get a driver's license, contact your Department of Motor Vehicles. If your state uses your Social Security number as your driver's license number, ask to substitute another number.

If You're Still Having Identity Problems...

Stay alert to new instances of identity theft. Notify the company or creditor that's involved immediately. Follow up in writing.

See Web Site on Identity Thieves.

For more information about identity theft, check out the federal government's Federal Trade Commission (FTC) central website on identity theft. The FTC has established a toll-free number 1-800-877-438-4338 to identity theft complaints.

You also may want to contact:

Identity Theft Resource Center

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, which provides information on how to network with other identity theft victims. Call (619) 298-3396.

The US Secret Service, which has jurisdiction over financial fraud cases. Although the Service generally investigates cases where the dollar loss is substantial, your information may provide evidence of a larger pattern of fraud requiring their involvement. Contact your local field office.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI. The Justice Department, which prosecutes federal fraud cases, and its Federal Bureau of Investigation, which investigates suspected ID thefts, have posted useful information on the Internet. To speak with someone at a local field office of the FBI, check the government listings in your local telephone book.

The Social Security Administration, which may issue you a new Social Security number if you still have difficulties even after trying to resolve the problems resulting from identity theft. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that a new Social Security number will resolve your problems.

Information on New Rules for protecting your privacy.

Complaint Clearinghouse

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the federal clearinghouse for consumer complaints about identity theft. The information you provide can help the Commission and other law enforcement agencies track, investigate and prosecute identity thieves.

You can file a complaint with the FTC.

Although the FTC cannot resolve individual problems for consumer, it can act against a company if it sees a pattern of possible law violations.

Cases of stolen identity don't occur just in the movies or mystery novels. They happen to real people, and ever more frequently. We've tried to give you some of the best, easiest ways to protect your good name. Don't let ID theft take on a life of its own—yours.