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Last night, a fairly sophisticated ring apparently swept through my neighborhood stealing from cars. Unfortunately, my wallet was stolen with my driver's license and my Social Security card. Worse, an external hard drive was also taken that had tons of personal financial information. While much of it was in a password-protected document, there was also several years' worth of statements from many of my accounts. What is the best way to protect yourself if you feel someone may have every bit of information they would need to defraud you? How can you feel secure beyond the initial one-year security alert?
When your personal information is stolen, it can feel very overwhelming. However, there are some important steps you can take right away to help minimize the damage that could be done by a potential fraudster.
Immediately Contact Law Enforcement and Your Lenders
The first thing you should do is notify your local law enforcement authority that your car was broken into and tell them what items were stolen. A police report is a vital document when recovering from any account fraud or other crimes using your identity. Should any of your accounts be used fraudulently, your lenders may ask for copies of this report as part of their investigation process, which brings us to our next step.
Because the thieves may have access to your account numbers, the next step should be to notify your bank and your lenders so they can take steps to protect any accounts that may have been compromised, such as your bank accounts and credit card accounts. They will probably close your accounts to new charges and issue new cards for you with new account numbers.
The third step is to add a temporary security alert to your credit history and go over your credit reports and scores. This alert notifies lenders that someone may be trying to apply for credit in your name and asks that they take extra steps to verify the identity of the applicant before approving new credit or service requests.
You have the right to add the alert to your credit report quickly and easily online at Experian's Fraud Center. When you place a fraud alert on your credit report with one credit bureau, the other two bureaus will be notified to add a fraud alert to the reports they maintain as well. The initial alert remains on the credit report for 12 months. During this time, you should monitor your credit reports regularly to check for signs of identity theft. If there is no sign of new account fraud, you may decide to let the alert expire after that period.
On the other hand, if there have been ongoing attempts to commit new account fraud during that time, you can provide a copy of the police report to Experian and have an extended fraud alert added to your credit report. Also called a fraud victim statement, this alert remains on your credit report for seven years. It asks lenders to contact you at a phone number you provide before extending credit in your name.
Some Fraud May Not Be Credit-Related
The alerts will help protect you from new credit account fraud. However, you still may be at risk of other types of fraud that do not involve accessing a credit report. Borrowing of payday loans, use of existing account numbers, employment fraud or online auction fraud are examples.
There may be few actions you can proactively take to help prevent these types of identity fraud. The most important thing to do is remain diligent. If there are any signs—such as unrecognized charges on your accounts or calls from a collection agency—you can respond to the business with the police report and any other documentation you collect and ask them to close the fraudulent accounts and correct their records. Enrolling in a good monitoring service like Experian IdentityWorks℠ can help alert you to misuse of your information and enable you to respond rapidly to stop it. Experian not only monitors your credit report but also watches the dark web and social media for potential signs of your identity being stolen or misused.
Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
Although there is no foolproof way to prevent identity theft and fraud from ever occurring, there are things you can do to help lessen your chances of becoming a victim:
- Be careful with your property. Never leave sensitive information or expensive computer equipment in your car, whether it's parked at the mall or in your own driveway.
- Protect your personally identifiable information. Don't carry your Social Security card, birth certificate or passport in your wallet or purse unless absolutely necessary, and never leave it in your car.
- Be careful when browsing the internet. Don't use public Wi-Fi networks to access banking or financial information, and only use secure websites when shopping online (check the URL—the "s" in https means the site is secure).
- Shred sensitive documents before discarding them. It's a simple step that can thwart thieves.
- Beware of shoulder surfers. Check your surroundings to make sure no one is looking over your shoulder before you enter personal information on your phone or laptop in public.
- Review your credit reports regularly. Monitoring your credit history can help alert you to signs of fraud sooner. You can get a free copy of your credit report weekly from each of the three credit reporting agencies through AnnualCreditReport.com from now until April 2022 and enroll in free credit monitoring through Experian.
Thanks for asking.
Jennifer White, Consumer Education Specialist