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If you're the victim of identity theft, there are five steps you should take right away to help hamper the thief's actions and limit your exposure. You can then focus on recovering your identity and putting protections in place to reduce the chance of someone using your identity in the future.
5 Steps to Take Right Now
You want to act quickly to limit the damage and close or report any accounts that the identity thieves are using. Even if you don't know for sure whether someone is using your identity, it may be better to assume the worst if you feel like something is amiss.
1. See if You Have Identity Theft Insurance
Some credit and identity monitoring programs, including Experian IdentityWorksSM Premium and Family plans, include identity theft insurance as a benefit. If you're covered, you can start by contacting the insurance company and filing a claim. An identity theft specialist can help walk you through the specific steps you need to take based on your situation and might even take some to-do items off your list.
The nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center also offers free individual assistance to victims of identity theft by chat or over the phone.
2. Contact the Relevant Companies
Contact any companies or organizations that the identity thieves are using to profit off your stolen identity. In some cases, you may need a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or police report (see step 3) first.
The companies you need to contact will depend on the type of identity theft, but financial institutions are often the first on the list:
- Credit card issuers and lenders: Card issuers and lenders can close accounts that identity thieves open in your name. You can also report any unusual activity on your accounts, such as an unexpected credit card purchase, if the thief used your credit card.
- Banks and credit unions: Contact your bank or credit union if you think someone opened an account in your name or is writing bad checks against your checking accounts. You can order a free copy of your report from ChexSystems, a consumer reporting agency (similar to the credit bureaus) that helps keep track of when people open deposit accounts and bounce checks.
The companies can then close, freeze and correct your accounts. You generally aren't responsible for any fraudulent transactions, and the financial institutions will often immediately reverse or cover the charges. Keep any confirmation letters from your bank or credit card company, as you may want these as proof of the fraud if you have to dispute information on your credit reports later.
3. Report the Theft to the FTC and the Police
If you haven't already done so, report the identity theft to the FTC on IdentityTheft.gov. The FTC will create a personal recovery plan that you can follow and give you an FTC Identity Theft Report, which you can use as proof of identity theft while recovering your identity.
Reporting the theft to a local police department can also be helpful. Even if you don't have many details or expect the police to investigate the theft, some organizations may ask for a police report rather than the FTC Identity Theft Report as proof of the identity theft.
4. Add a Fraud Alert to Your Credit Reports
Adding a fraud alert on your consumer credit reports will tell creditors that you may be the victim of identity theft and they should take extra steps to confirm your identity before opening an account in your name.
You can contact one of the national credit reporting agencies (Experian, TransUnion or Equifax) to add the alert—you can do this online from Experian's fraud alert center. The credit bureau will then forward your request to the other two bureaus, so all three of your credit reports will have the fraud alert on file. It will stay there for up to a year, although you can renew it if you choose.
5. Freeze Your Credit Reports
You can also freeze your credit files to limit who can access your reports. The freeze can help keep someone from opening an account in your name even if they can answer identifying questions that get them past the fraud alert checks. However, you also need to remember to unfreeze (or thaw) your reports when you want to open a new account. You also need to freeze your credit report at each of the bureaus individually.
You can use Experian's Security Freeze Center to freeze or unfreeze your Experian credit report online. Equifax and TransUnion have separate online portals.
There are also specialty consumer reporting agencies that companies may request reports from when trying to open other types of accounts. Freezing these reports can help limit what an identity thief can do in your name. For example, freezing your ChexSystems report can help prevent someone from opening a bank account in your name, and freezing your National Consumer Telecom and Security Exchange report can keep someone from opening a phone, cable or utility account.
Next Steps to Take After Identity Theft
The immediate actions above will alert the proper organizations and put a few safety measures in place, but the work isn't over. Next, you'll want to take a closer look at your accounts, start cleaning up any damage and add extra layers of security.
1. Report and Close Newly Opened Accounts
Keep an eye out for signs that the thieves opened an account in your name, such as an email or letter congratulating you on a new bank account or credit card. Immediately reach out to the organization to report the account as fraudulent.
2. Review Your Credit Reports
If the thieves used your credit accounts or applied for credit in your name, the lenders may report this information to the credit bureaus. Closely review your credit reports for fraud-related information, such as a credit account you didn't open or a collection account from a bill that the thief didn't pay.
You can get free copies of your three credit reports online at AnnualCreditReport.com, and Experian additionally offers a free Experian credit report, which is updated every 30 days, when you sign into your account.
If you find something inaccurate or suspicious, you can dispute fraud-related information with creditors or credit bureaus.
3. Monitor Your Credit Reports
Continually monitor your credit reports for signs of fraud. A credit monitoring service can make this easier, as you'll automatically get an alert if there's new or suspicious activity in your credit file.
4. Update and Secure Your Online Accounts
Identity thieves might try to use your personal information to access or take over your online accounts, but two simple steps can help keep your accounts safer:
- Use multifactor authentication. Multifactor authentication (MFA) can keep someone out of your account even if they know your username and password. With MFA turned on, you may need to use additional verification, such as a number that's texted to you or generated by an authentication app, to log in to your account.
- Secure your mobile phone account. If thieves can move your mobile phone number to a phone they control, they may be able to get past some MFA requests. Every major carrier offers security measures that you can enable to protect yourself from SIM swapping and porting.
Even with these protections in place, you'll still want to monitor your accounts for unusual activity or changes.
Ongoing Steps You May Want or Need to Take
Unfortunately, recovering from identity theft isn't always a one-and-done task. The thieves might try to use your identity in different ways or even sell it on the dark web, which can perpetuate the issue. Some people spend years dealing with the ongoing practical and emotional toll.
Depending on your situation, you may want or need to:
Report and Replace Identification Cards
- You can apply for a new Social Security card online and create or review your online Social Security account to see if someone is using your Social Security number.
- If your driver's license is gone, report the theft or loss to your state's department of motor vehicles and request a replacement.
- You can also report a lost or stolen passport to the U.S. Department of State online or by mail.
Stop Debt Collectors
Although you aren't responsible for the debt, you'll need to let the debt collectors know you're the victim of identity theft and that they should stop contacting you. The FTC has a sample letter you can use as a template.
Request an IRS Identity Protection PIN
Thieves may use your personal information to file a tax return and claim refunds. You can request a free IRS Identity Protection PIN (IP PIN) to help keep someone from filing a tax return in your name. If you find your tax return is rejected because someone already filed a return, fill out an Identity Theft Affidavit and submit it alongside a physical copy of your return.
Sign Up for Informed Delivery From the USPS
The USPS' free Informed Delivery services will send you a daily email with information on the mail or packages you'll receive, including pictures of most pieces of mail. You can use the program to monitor your incoming mail for letters that might contain checks or cards related to an account that the identity thief opened—and may try to steal from your mailbox. You can also report identity, mail and package theft to the USPS.
Monitor Your Health Records
One active step you can take is to request and monitor your health records. Medical identity theft can be especially scary because your medical records could get mixed up if someone gets medical procedures using your information. Try to review your medical records at least once a year and report any mistakes you find.
Look Into Identity Monitoring Programs
If you notice any other signs of identity theft, such as a notification of a new phone service, unemployment benefits or investment account, you'll need to reach out to the respective company or agency as well.
Identity monitoring programs like Experian IdentityWorksSM can help by monitoring your credit reports and additional databases for your information and suspicious changes. The programs may also include support from trained specialists and identity theft insurance policies that can help cover the cost of restoring your identity.