Identity theft is at an all-time high, according to a 2018 report by Javelin Strategy and Research, with a record 16.7 million victims in 2017.
Despite the increased occurrence of identity theft, it's still a jarring experience to learn that someone opened a credit card in your name.
The FTC Sentinel Report shows there were over 105,000 reports of new credit card account fraud in 2017, a growth of 3% over 2016. Credit card fraud is the most reported type of identity theft in the U.S. according to the FTC report.
You often find out someone opened a credit card in your name because you get a statement in the mail for a credit card you didn't open, find an unauthorized account on your credit report, or notice that your credit scores have dropped because of a high overdue balance and missed payments.
After the initial shock, it's important that you take action immediately. After all, the thief still has your name and Social Security number (since it's needed for the credit card application) and can strike again. Here are five steps you can take if someone opens a credit card in your name, so you can close the account and prevent further fraud.
1. Contact the Credit Card Issuer's Fraud Department
The first thing you should do if someone opened a credit card in your name is to let the credit card issuer know that the account is fraudulent. If you received a letter or email that looks like it's from the issuer, it could be a phishing scam, so resist the urge to call the number provided.
Instead, go to the issuer's website and call the customer service number listed. Depending on the situation, you may need to call the issuer several times to restore everything, so keep records of what the customer service representatives tell you.
Ask the issuer to close the account while it investigates the fraud, so you don't have to worry about the thief racking up more debt in your name. If they won't close the account before investigating it, ask that they at least put a hold or freeze on any new charges.
2. Report the Identity Theft
You should file an identity theft report with the FTC. This will help you document the incident and you can use the identity theft report to get a free credit freeze, if you decide to go that route.
There are also additional identity theft resources here on Experian.com to help with additional tips on what do if you're the victim of different types of identity theft.
3. Consider a Fraud Alert or Credit Freeze
Once you've addressed the account you know about, the next step is to prevent the fraudster from opening more.
There are two ways to do this: fraud alerts or a credit freeze.
Initial fraud alert
An initial fraud alert stays on your credit report for 90 days and notifies lenders that you may be a victim of identity theft. Any lender that receives a credit application in your name can then contact you directly to verify your identity before opening the account.
You only need to request an initial fraud alert with one of the three credit agencies—Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. That agency will automatically notify the other two. Once the 90-day period is up, you can renew for another 90 days. There's no limit to how many times you can renew.
Extended fraud alert
If you want long-term protection but don't want to have to remember to renew your fraud alert every few months, consider an extended fraud alert.
An extended fraud alert lasts for seven years and requires a copy of the investigative or incident report that you filed. The same verification process applies to lenders. And if you feel like you don't need the alert for the full seven years, you can remove it in the future.
Rather than notifying lenders that your personal information has been compromised, a credit freeze prevents them from accessing your credit report altogether. Without that access, it's unlikely that they'll create a credit account in your name.
Unlike fraud alerts, you have to request a credit freeze with each individual credit agency.
Keep in mind, though, that a credit freeze can also prevent you from getting credit. The same may apply if you're looking for a new job, applying to rent an apartment or opening a utility account. That said, you can request a temporary lift when those you need to.
Depending on where you live, you may be charged a fee to request a credit freeze. However, fees are waived if you share a valid investigative report.
Also, if you're a member of Experian CreditWorks or Experian IdentityWorks, you can easily lock (and unlock) your Experian credit file with Experian CreditLock via the website or app.
4. Review Your Credit Reports
Hopefully, the fraudulent account you know about is the only one, but it could be just the tip of the iceberg.
As a result, it's crucial that you check your credit reports to see if there's additional fraud. Review the accounts on your reports, especially the dates they were opened. Then check your own records to make sure they match up with when you opened your legitimate accounts.
You can request a free copy of your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com as you're entitled to one free credit report from each of the three credit agencies every 12 months. You're also entitled to an extra free copy of your credit report if you request a fraud alert. You can also get a free copy of your Experian credit report here on Experian.com
If you're having trouble deciphering your report once you receive a copy, check out Experian's guide on how to read your credit report.
5. Dispute Fraudulent Information With the Credit Bureaus
Once you've reviewed your credit reports, if you see anything that isn't yours on them (like a new credit card account), you'll want to dispute the information. Fraudulent accounts can damage your credit scores, especially because the identity thief is highly unlikely to make any payments on the account.
So, in addition to reporting the fraud to the credit card issuer and the police, dispute the unauthorized account with the credit bureaus. Be sure to note that the balance on the account is because of fraud and include any documentation you've already received from the credit card issuer.
You can begin a dispute with Experian online here. You'll also need to dispute anything with Transunion or Equifax via their respective websites. Once Experian and the other credit agencies receive your dispute, they'll contact the credit card issuer to verify the information. When the investigation is complete, they'll provide you with a response and remove any account that is confirmed to be fraudulent.
Life gets busy sometimes, but identity theft can go from bad to worse in an eyeblink if you're not careful. Start these steps as soon as you learn about someone opening a credit card in your name, and do whatever you can to prevent the fraud from happening again. The sooner you catch and address fraud, the less havoc it will wreak on your credit and financial health.
Also, by regularly checking your credit card statements and your credit report, you can keep an eye on any suspicious activity to take action immediately.
Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer or other company, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities. All information, including rates and fees, are accurate as of the date of publication.
This article was originally published on April 11, 2018, and has been updated.