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When you've made the terrible discovery that your home has been burglarized, know that you can lose a lot more than stashed cash and precious jewelry. Your identity also is at risk. Identity theft is a type of crime where someone takes your personal data and uses it to impersonate you. That person may steal from your bank accounts, make charges with your credit cards and open new credit accounts in your name, leaving you with the bill and potentially damaging your credit.
Before problems start, take action to safeguard your identity. And if identity theft has already begun, know how to shut it down fast.
How Your Personal Data Can Be Stolen From Your Home
Once in your home, there are a number of places a thief can find your personal data:
- Mail: A thief may grab paper statements sent from your bank, credit card issuer or deposit accounts. This mail contains valuable information the thief can use to buy things online and over the phone, or make duplicate cards to shop from brick-and-mortar stores. Mail that contains your Social Security number and date of birth (which is typically on letters from the IRS, medical providers and the Social Security Administration) is also highly prized by identity thieves.
- Laptop or computer: If your laptop or computer is not password-protected, anybody in possession of it has a window into your stored information. To find it, somebody could search your hard drive for keywords, such as "credit card accounts," "medical insurance" and "2018 taxes." If login information for online retailers is saved in your browser, that can also be used.
- Private documents: There is plenty of other paperwork you definitely do not want a stranger to access. Such documents include:
- Birth certificates and Social Security cards
- Passports and expired driver's licenses
- Estate planning paperwork
- Tax returns
- Property deeds and home appraisals
- Banking and investment documents
- Marriage certificates, divorce papers and adoption forms
The more of your personal identification information a thief has, the easier it will be to "become" you. To open new credit card accounts, for example, the person will apply with your name, Social Security number and birth date, but will list their own mailing address. The card will be sent to them, and after using it, they won't pay the bill. Because the account is associated with your name and Social Security number, it will show up on your consumer credit report. You may not learn about the crime until you check your credit report, only to find a large and unpaid debt in your name.
What to Do After a Burglary
Thankfully, you can take steps to help prevent identity theft from happening after a burglary. You do have to move fast, though:
- File a police report. Contact your local law enforcement to file a report regarding the robbery. You will have the opportunity to list everything that was stolen, including anything that helps a thief commit identity theft. In the event that identity theft does occur, you will have the report number, which will help you with disputes.
- Secure your credit reports. Add a fraud alert to your report to inform lenders that they need to take extra precautions before approving any new credit requests. You can add it to your report with one of the credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax or TransUnion—and the other two will follow suit. A regular fraud alert will remain in effect for 90 days, but if you have a police report and submit it to the credit bureau, you can request it to last for seven years. You may also add telephone numbers for a lender to use to confirm your identity before granting a loan, line of credit or credit increase. Another option is a security freeze, which prevents lenders from accessing your credit report without your consent. To add it, you would notify each of the bureaus separately. Just be aware that if you're seeking a credit product, the freeze can delay the process since you'll have to unfreeze it first.
- Review your credit reports. As soon as you can, check all three credit reports from the different credit bureaus, and check them on a regular basis going forward. This way you'll know if there is any fraudulent activity before a debt gets out of hand.
What to Do if You Suspect Identity Theft
In the event that you suspect that identity theft has already started, take immediate action:
- Contact your credit card issuers. If your credit cards were stolen or the account information compromised, call the issuers right away. They will suspend the accounts, make the cards and account numbers unusable, and send you new cards with different numbers. Be sure to update your recurring payments with the new card information as soon as possible to avoid missed payments.
- Notify your banks. Inform your financial institutions where you have savings, checking and investment accounts that you were burglarized. As with the credit card issuers, those banks will take measures to protect you against potential and current fraudulent activity.
- File a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report. To streamline the reporting and disputing process, the FTC has developed an easy, step-by-step guide to deal with the aftermath of having your identity stolen and used.
- Dispute fraud-related information. If you spot what you believe could be fraudulent information on your credit report, contact the company that is reporting it. After explaining that you've been a victim of identity theft and that you did not open the account or run up the balance, they may stop reporting the account to the credit bureaus. If they continue, provide them with a copy of your FTC Identity Theft Report. The Fair Credit Billing Act made it so you are not responsible for fraudulent debts, so if it continues to appear, dispute it with one of the credit bureaus.
Finally, prepare for the long haul. Because identity theft activity can pop up at any time, it can take months or even years before you are confident that you're in the clear. From this point forward, read all credit card and checking account statements carefully. Identity thieves may test out their ability to make purchases in someone else's name with small, hard-to-notice transactions. Check your credit report on a regular basis too. Consider using Experian's CreditWorks℠ Basic plan where you can view your report once a month, for free. This will empower you to stay on top of any unauthorized activity.