How to Protect Yourself If You’ve Been Scammed Online

Woman Getting Online Help

If you've been scammed online, the person who stole your information can wreak havoc on your life. Regardless of what's been taken from you, it's crucial to take steps to protect yourself as quickly as possible.

That includes contacting your creditors and the credit reporting agencies, as well as filing a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and your local police department. Learn about these steps and how they can help you stop identity thieves in their tracks.

Contact Your Banks and Credit Card Companies

If the scam involved your credit card information or login credentials for your financial accounts, contact your banks and credit card companies immediately to cancel your cards and receive new ones.

While you're getting help with this process, ask the representative to check your recent transactions to make sure you recognize them. If there are some that you don't, you can flag them as fraudulent.

Also, take some time to change your online passwords to stop the criminal from accessing your accounts. If you use the same password on more than one website, update each account with a unique password to make it more difficult for hackers to crack.

If you have many different passwords and need help keeping track of them, consider registering for a password manager like LastPass or 1Password.

Reach Out to the Credit Bureaus

The three national credit reporting agencies, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax, maintain and provide access to your credit reports. If you think someone has obtained your personally identifiable information, especially your Social Security number, contact each of the credit bureaus to restrict access to your credit reports. Here's how.

Freeze Your Credit

One way to keep people from using your credit report fraudulently is with a credit freeze. Freezing your credit prohibits anyone from viewing your credit report, including creditors, unless you lift the freeze using a personal identification number (PIN) provided to you.

This means that if someone tries to use your information to open a fraudulent account in your name, the creditor won't be able to approve the application because it can't run a credit check.

You can request a free credit freeze on your Experian credit report through the Experian Security Freeze Center or by calling 888-397-3742. The other two credit bureaus provide similar methods to freeze your reports.

One drawback to freezing your credit is that it doesn't only prevent scammers from getting approved for credit—it prevents you from getting approved as well. But if you're not planning on applying for a loan or credit card anytime soon, it can provide valuable protection.

Request a Fraud Alert

If you don't want to go through this process with each credit bureau, consider placing a fraud alert on your credit reports instead. There are two types of fraud alerts you can place on your report after discovering that you've been scammed: an initial fraud alert and an extended fraud alert.

Unlike credit freezes, you only need to request an initial fraud alert with one of the three national credit bureaus. The agency that receives your request will pass it along to the other two.

This alert, which you can request with Experian through the Experian Fraud Alert Center or by calling 888-397-3742, adds a notification to your credit reports for potential creditors. The message encourages them to verify your information before extending credit in your name. You can provide a phone number where creditors can reach you to verify your identity before they proceed.

An initial fraud alert remains on your credit reports for 90 days, and you can renew it as many times as you want. If you want an extended fraud alert, which lasts for seven years, you will need to contact each credit bureau to submit your request. You'll also need to provide an identity theft report, which includes an identity theft affidavit from the FTC and a police report (see below).

Submit a Complaint to the Federal Trade Commission

Before you file a police report, submit a report about the theft to the FTC. As you go through the process, you'll answer some questions about what happened, and the FTC will create a personal recovery plan to help you with the next steps.

From there, you can create an account with the FTC, which can give you access to additional resources and help you keep track of your progress. It will also provide an identity theft affidavit, which you can use when you file your police report and then if you decide to request an extended fraud alert.

File a Police Report

The process for filing a police report can vary depending on where you live. Check with your local police department to see if you can file a report online or if you need to submit a paper report in person.

Go through the report and answer all the questions to the best of your ability. Then provide it to the police department using its approved channels.

After you've filed the report, request a copy of it, especially if you're thinking about requesting an extended fraud alert on your credit reports.

Monitor Your Credit

As you take these steps, your information will become less valuable to the scammer who stole it. If they steal a credit card number, for instance, canceling the card will immediately stop them from being able to use your line of credit. And if they have your Social Security number, placing a credit freeze or fraud alert on your credit reports can stop the thief from opening new accounts in your name.

Just keep in mind that there are other ways a criminal can use your Social Security number, including filing fraudulent tax returns and health insurance claims. So keep an eye on those things as well, so you can report the fraud immediately if it occurs.

Throughout this process, it's important to monitor your credit in case a scammer manages to use your information before you lock it down. Check your credit report regularly for potential changes that you don't recognize, and also keep an eye on your credit score in case it drops suddenly, which could be a sign that there's trouble.

There's no surefire way to stop identity theft, but if you keep track of your credit and follow the other steps listed above, you'll have a much better chance of recovering quickly from a scam.