There it was on my credit report: a delinquent account more than 90 days overdue. It was hurting my credit and my chances at refinancing my mortgage.
The only problem was — I didn’t recognize the account or remember opening it. I started to suspect I was the victim of identity theft.
Identity theft is when someone steals your personal information and uses it to commit fraud. Typically this is credit fraud, meaning the identity thief will apply for credit or open an account in your name. But identity thieves may also try to get access to your bank accounts or file taxes in your name to try and steal a tax refund.
What to do if you’re the victim of identity theft
Having recently handled my own instance of identity theft, I know how scary it can be to realize someone out there has your personal information. To wonder how else they might try to get at you and your financial security.
But you’re not powerless. You can follow these steps to repair the damage and protect yourself from future potential fraud — and regain peace of mind.
1. Put a fraud alert on your credit
Placing a fraud alert on your credit is the first thing to do if you realize you’re the victim of identity theft. In fact, it’s a smart step even if you’re just worried that your personal information might have been compromised or misused — maybe you lost a wallet or some mail was stolen, for example.
I took this step after a friend reminded me on Twitter that I could do so.
Putting a fraud alert on my credit requires creditors to take some extra steps to verify my identity before opening an account in my name. This action also allows you to order a free credit report from each bureau, which can aid you in finding potentially fraudulent accounts or errors.
The process is simple: all you need to do is contact one of the three major credit bureaus in the U.S.: Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion (the FTC provides contact info for each). You can request they place a fraud alert on your credit report. This bureau is then required to contact the other two, so you’ll have this alert on all three reports. This fraud alert lasts one year; you can request another after a year.
2. Collect information about the potential fraud
If you’ve come across signs of identity theft or fraud, investigate and be ready to take action. Investigate your credit and other accounts to get more details about any fraudulent charges or accounts. Here are some steps you should take to watch out for identity theft:
- Open any and all mail you get, and watch out for statements from unknown credit or service accounts.
- Review account statements regularly for potential fraudulent charges.
- Request a free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com and review it for any unfamiliar accounts or errors. You can usually get one free credit report from each bureau every year. But now through April 20, 2021 you can get a free report to review each week.
In my case, after pulling my credit report I found a credit account that had been opened a few months prior and was now more than 60 days delinquent. I knew that was incorrect, so I noted the company I needed to call to try and resolve the issue.
3. Dispute the fraudulent charges or accounts
The next step is to call the creditor or service provider where the identity fraud happened.
Find the company’s fraud division and call it; be prepared to provide your identifying details as well as details you have about the fraudulent account or charges. Inform the company that the account or charge is fraudulent and ask them to close or freeze those accounts. This will prevent further fraudulent charges.
Some businesses might require you to take certain steps to prove identity theft or fraud occurred, so take notes of further actions you need to take. You should also inquire about their process for correcting fraudulent information with credit reporting agencies.
In my case, I called up the company where the fraudulent account was opened and informed them I hadn’t authorized its opening. The company responded by closing it and, upon my asking, assured me that the delinquency would be corrected on my reports in 2-4 weeks.
4. Report the identity theft
Each business will have its own policies and procedures for dealing with fraudulent accounts. Ultimately, they’re all required to follow certain rules and respect your rights as a consumer when it comes to identity theft and fraud.
But some will want to see proof of fraud or stolen identity before they’re willing to close an account or not hold you responsible for the charges. Reporting the fraud also gives you documentation to take to businesses that might require it.
The first way you can do this is to create an FTC Identity Theft Report. You’ll be asked to provide your personal details, as well as details about the fraudulent accounts, so be ready with that information.
After filing a report, the FTC will generate a personal recovery plan and official statements about the crime.
This FTC Identity Theft should be enough in most cases, but some victims will need to also file a police report, which you can do so by contacting your local police department. You might consider filing a police report if a creditor or debt collector requires that you provide a police report for your claim.
The FTC also recommends doing so if you know who the thief is, have details that could help an investigation of the crime, or if the thief used your name in an encounter with law enforcement.
5. Update all passwords and PINs
If your personal information or accounts have been compromised, you’ll want to secure all your online accounts — especially your financial accounts and your email.
After realizing my information had been compromised, I dedicated an hour to changing all passwords and PINs on all accounts. You should also change any security questions used to reset passwords, and turn on multi-step authentication and make sure it’s paired to your own email address or phone number.
And for extra protection, consider upgrading to a password manager like LastPass or 1Password. These can help you generate unique passwords for each website or account, managed all in one place.
This will make your accounts more secure in the future, as a breach of your password on one site won’t give identity thieves the key to other accounts you own.
6. Run damage control on your credit
Lastly, you’ll want to make sure any incorrect information or fraudulent accounts don’t stay on your credit report.
Pull a credit report a couple of weeks after taking the steps above to make sure erroneous info or accounts were removed. In my case, the fraudulent account was removed from my report within a couple of weeks.
If there’s still incorrect information on your report, however, you’ll want to take action. You can reach out again to the reporting company to request that they change or update the erroneous info.
If that doesn’t work, you can write to credit reporting agencies directly to dispute incorrect information on your report (the CFPB provides more details on this process and a sample dispute letter).
The credit agency will work with the reporting company to investigate the dispute within 30 days. If the information is found to be incorrect, the reporting company must alert all three credit bureaus; the credit bureau you wrote to must also send you all relevant information along with a free copy of your credit report.
There are steps you can take to protect yourself, your credit, and your finance from fraudsters. The key when dealing with identity theft is taking action as soon as possible.
Being a victim of identity theft is a pain but there definitely steps you can take to correct any errors on your credit report.
First, call the credit bureaus and put a fraud report on your credit to stop any new activity. Then call the company where the fraud occurred, this is likely a bank or credit card company where the fraudulent loan was taken.
Finally, take steps to protect yourself in the future by changing all your passwords and pin numbers.
Have you ever been a victim of identity theft? How did you handle it?