A few years ago, I was traveling in a foreign country. On my way to a church service, my credit card was stolen by pickpockets. Back at my hotel an hour later, I called my card issuer and canceled my card. In one hour, some amateur street crooks charged $15,000 in goods to my card, including lunch at McDonalds. Imagine what a thief smart enough to steal your whole identity can do, not in a just few hours, but in a few days or weeks! That is why fast action is essential. The good news is that most of the places you need to contact to put an end to matters are open 24 hours a day, so a midnight call won’t wake anyone up.
Recovering from identity theft is almost always more time consuming and upsetting than you think. However, relying on others to solve a problem that is yours alone is sure to lead to even more disappointment and credit damage. The good news is that if your identity has been compromised you can repair and safeguard your credit on your own by following some simple steps that I outline in this article.
Emotions run high when you first find out that you have been victimized. Yet quick action is essential. So, to keep you on track in a time of stress I have divided your tasks up into three segments. To be successful you’ll need to first inform the right people and agencies quickly, second, take the appropriate steps to stop the damage from spreading and lastly work on repairing your credit.
1. Connect with the right people.
But who are they? Should you call the police to establish a formal record, or your creditors or perhaps the credit bureaus? My advice depends on what has been compromised:
If your bank accounts or credit cards have been hijacked, call your bank or creditors first.
If you have found out about accounts you never knew you had and didn’t open, call the credit bureaus first.
But before you make any calls, be sure you are ready to start recording everything that is about to happen. Not an audio or video recording, but names, dates, times, badge numbers and phone numbers. Now make that first call fast and follow up with the second call (see above) as soon as you can. Documentation is critical because chances are it will take you weeks or months before you can resolve matters and your memory will likely be overwhelmed with information which will be further compromised by the passage of time. Don’t trust your memory and don’t trust others to call back when they say they will.
You’ll do yourself a service by writing it all down and staying in charge of the process. After all you’re the only one with something to lose.
Once you make your first call above, your next call should be to the police department. File a report providing all the facts you have. Be sure to get the police report number with the date, time, police department, location and the name of the officer writing the report. You’ll need this information when dealing with insurance claims, credit card issuers, lenders or collectors to clear your account.
2. Stop the damage from spreading.
Have the credit reporting bureaus send out a fraud alert and also freeze your credit reports. Here’s more good news: if you call just one of the three major bureaus and report an identity theft, they will arrange for a fraud alert to be placed on all three of your credit files within 24 hours. This should not stop you from calling all three yourself to be safe.
Especially as I recommend that you call them all anyway to place a “credit freeze” on your information. What’s the difference between a “fraud alert” and a “credit freeze?” A fraud alert only notifies creditors to follow enhanced procedures before issuing new credit or loans in your name. This makes additional fraud less likely, but not impossible. When you freeze your credit reports, no one can access them without your express permission. Without a credit report, creditors will not issue new credit, so you are much safer with a freeze than an alert.
3. Repair your credit.
You may have second thoughts about reestablishing your credit immediately after an ID theft. It’s understandable that you may be wary the whole mess could happen all over again. However, credit is an indispensable tool to help achieve your personal and financial goals. So I suggest that you get going on repairing your credit as soon as you can.
Start with your bank accounts. Once your ID has been stolen you can’t tell where it may be used again. Changing account numbers results in a dead end for thieves. While you’re closing and reopening your accounts be sure to place alerts on them so that when transaction limits exceed a value you choose, you are notified immediately.
Next tackle your credit card accounts. Contact your credit card issuers, including those that have not been compromised. Explain what happened and have them close and reopen new cards. They are used to doing this and it should be a relatively painless process.
Don’t forget your other accounts such as internet service providers, telephone service providers and utility companies. Alert them to your ID theft and get new account numbers and set new hard to break passwords or pass-phrases. A pass-phrase uses a short series of words that is easy to remember like Hawaiiis#1. Check your credit reports frequently to see if any new fraudulent accounts show up. If you find accounts that aren’t yours you can request that the credit bureau “block” any lines of credit you believe are fraudulent. The block prevents those accounts from being sold, transferred or placed for collection. In addition be sure to ask the credit bureau to remove any inquiries associated with the fraudulent lines. Those inquiries could lower your credit score.
You’re entitled to at least one free credit report each year from each bureau. You can often get more than one if you file a “fraud alert”. Specialty reporting agencies (see my earlier article on these other national bureaus) such as insurance and landlord reporting services must also give you a free report if you ask. So ask!
If you are concerned that more than your credit accounts have been compromised, go to your state drivers registry and get a new drivers license number. If you are really concerned, you can also apply for a new social security number. If you go this route however, be prepared to change all the records out there that have your old number.
Ever had your identity stolen? How did you get your sense of security back?