Think you're having a bad day? Stuck in traffic, late for work, your kid is flunking math, the kitchen is a mess after dropping an egg? Well, you can relax and count your blessings. Because as horrible as those days might be, they pale in comparison to the ulcer-inducing rush of discovering that someone out there has not only stolen your identity, but is also hard at work leveraging your lifelong pursuit of solvency while sending your credit score plummeting and sucking your bank accounts dry. What to do about it? There's plenty, actually. You may not get the scumbag who did this into a court of law, but you can quickly and effectively bring the free ride on the back of your hard-won credit to an abrupt and righteous halt, while side-stepping a potential financial hit and even time in jail for crimes you didn't commit. Find Out You're a Victim? Stop Identity Theft Now One of the scariest aspects of identity theft is that once you discover you're being ripped off, you have no real way of knowing when or how it happened. Which means, someone may have been living la vida loca on your dime for quite a while. And while there are many forms of identity theft, some with unique responses and challenges, any use of your personal information without your knowledge or consent calls for one universal response: speed. Like a heart attack - an apt metaphor here - each hour that passes without you having thrown down the gauntlet of response increases your chances of trouble on many fronts. The Terrifying Signs of Identity Theft How do you even know that someone has stolen your identity? Luckily, you'll see the signs:
- A charge on your credit statement you don't recognize (they will likely start out small so as to not be too noticeable)
- Unauthorized credit cards from strange banks suddenly appearing in your mailbox
- Your credit card or bank statements not appearing in your mailbox (the identity thief changed your address without your knowledge)
- Bill collectors with bad attitudes suddenly calling you in the middle of the night
- And the big kahuna of whistle blowers - you've applied for credit and the lender laughs in your face and tosses your application back at you, even though you know you've never missed a payment in your life.
Any of these could mean big trouble, and the sooner you can hone in on where that trouble resides, the quicker you can begin to shut it all down. There are three things you can and should do the moment you smell a rat in your wallet. They are presented here in a rough order of priority, but all three need attention as quickly as you can find your phone: 1. Close the appropriate credit accounts If the theft showed up on your credit card statement, chances are it's your credit card number that's been stolen and used. This could be the best news you'll get - you may simply be a victim of credit card fraud, not identity theft. Immediately call every credit card company you use to notify them of the theft and request a new account number and card. Also, specify which charges are fraudulent and ask them to initiate a reversal of those charges. The accountable party here is a gray area, since it is incumbent upon the vendor who accepted the fraudulent number to verify identity - and they didn't - and the credit card company is aligned with them in this regard. Which means, you shouldn't have to pay for charges to your account made by the thief who stole your number. They'll tell you they'll place the charge on hold pending an investigation, but if you stay the course you'll get it covered. In fact, the law states that if you are a victim of credit card fraud, you can only be responsible for up to $50 per card. Most, if not all credit card companies will charge you nothing - after all, in the name of good service, they wish you to remain a customer with them. If simple credit card fraud may not mean identity theft, there are unfortunately many other avenues where your personal information may have been stolen, and you need to be just as diligent about contacting those providers as quickly as you can. Brokerage accounts, bank accounts (including lost checks, and especially those that get cashed), passports, strange new loans (especially student loans), and misuse of your Social Security and driver's license numbers are all potential arenas of abuse, and all require the same response - speed and urgency, and not taking "no" for an answer. 2. Notify the three major credit bureaus to establish a fraud alert You are likely well aware that there are three credit bureaus that basically rule the known universe - Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. You only need to contact one of them with notification of fraud (they will notify the other two, but don't let that stop you from insisting that they do). And when you do, ask that the fraudulent accounts and any unpaid charges on any account stemming from the theft not be taken into account relative to your credit score. There is paperwork here, and you may need to wave your lawyer's card under their nose, but if you press this they are legally obligated to do as you ask. 3. Report the theft to the police and other appropriate authorities Identity theft that has manifested as fraud is a crime. And while it may not fulfill the NYPD fantasies of your local police brethren, it's their job to fill out the appropriate reports. Make sure you get a copy of the paperwork, or at least a case or file number, which may be helpful as you work your way along the sometimes chaotic path towards a solution. Unleash Your Inner Pit Bull Right behind speed and urgency in covering each of these three bases is the need to not back down. The people to whom you are complaining hear this stuff all the time, and rest assured they won't be as upset about it as you are. There will be paperwork, there may even be resistance, but don't allow any of it to get in your way of quickly achieving two things: stop the bleeding by shutting down any and all potential avenues of continued abuse, and begin cleaning up the potential mess in your credit ratings. Ask the bureau for a free credit report at the time of your initial call to see precisely where the thief has been spending your money and opening accounts using your personal information. Then, after you have the police report in hand, request that the initial 90-day fraud alert on your accounts be extended to seven years. Continue to monitor all account statements and periodic credit reports going forward. Whatever you do, and whoever you call, get ready for a landslide of paperwork. Each organization has their own form of fraud affidavit, and there are federal forms ready when the organization wants to take it to that level. Keep a copy of everything, and always follow up on timelines and commitments. When to Involve a Lawyer One of the darkest aspects of identity theft is when it results in your name appearing on certain lists. The types of lists you want to avoid at all costs. People have been tackled in airports because their name appears on a list as a result of identity theft, and when that happens they won't be receptive about the story of your stolen Mastercard. You'll have a lot of explaining to do on other fronts and will undoubtedly miss your flight. People have actually had their assets seized and been arrested as a consequence of having their identity stolen. While it usually gets worked out down the road, this is not a chapter you want written into your memoirs. If you believe the theft of your identify puts you in jeopardy of further consequences, or if you experience resistance from a creditor, collector or the credit bureaus, it's time to get a suit with a jurisprudence degree on your team. There are laws on the books that protect you and give you certain rights during this process, and unless you've passed the local bar exam yourself it's unlikely that you'll know where to find them or use them when you do. It'll be worth the fee in the long run, and even if you don't like lawyers, you'll love what they can do for you in this situation. Become the Good Guy Who Wins The entire dark landscape of identity theft is wide and diverse, as are the ways and means of responding to it. The internet is an invaluable resource to explore your options, including the availability of many government resources and forms that you'll need to fight the good fight of recovery. And while it's certain you're in for the hassle of our life when someone cops your identity in any form, it's less certain that it'll cost you all that much money, especially if you act quickly. And as it is with anything, prevention is worth an ounce of insurance, so don't casually flash the various numbers that define who you are. Be careful who you give your personal information to. Use one hand to cover the other when you are punching in the PIN of your debit card. Shred your bank statements instead of simply throwing them in the recycling bin. Subscribe to an identity theft protection service such as Lifelock to lock down your credit and alert you if a thief is trying to use your identity. While cleaning up your life and your financial credit will take some work, a quick resolution is possible. And as better laws toughen the crime of identity theft, it will become easier as well. If you are a victim, and you respond quickly and properly, the power to end this nightmare is within your grasp.