It is one of those things you think will never happen to you. You hear stories on the news. You have a friend of a friend who was a victim. It seems as likely as getting into a car accident, but on a daily basis you do far less to avoid it. That is exactly how I felt until I became a victim of identity theft.
It was a regular Wednesday morning. I was running errands with my 2-year-old screaming in the backseat when I received a call from a number I did not know. I usually would not answer, but something compelled me to, and boy, am I sure glad I did.
The call was from a department store credit card representative. She asked if I had a card with them, but the name she asked about was my maiden name. I told her I have never had a card with that store. She then proceeded to ask if I could verify my information including my social, date of birth, and current address. I hesitated thinking this was a scam, and she then told me she had all the information and could read it back to me. She did and it was all accurate.
When I asked what was going on, she informed me that the company believed someone had used my identity to apply for one of their store cards and was attempting to charge $1,700. I told her that that was in fact not me attempting to do that. She stopped the application and labeled it fraudulent, instructing me to call one of the three credit bureaus and place a fraud alert on my credit report. When I hung up with her, I immediately did just that.
After I placed the alert, I called my husband. He was initially suspicious about the call I had received, as was I, but little did we know that lady had done me a huge favor.
When I got home, I ran my credit report. What would unfold over the next three days was discovering a series of applications with over half a dozen credit card companies using my maiden name that amounted to a drop of almost 100 points in my credit score. I found out that this thief had actually been granted a line of credit at a jewelry store and had financed a $14,000 purchase, all while she was pretending to be me.
I spent hours on the phone, trying to track down every credit card company that was on my report. I am not alone, though. In 2016, over 15 million U.S. consumers were victims of identity theft.
In an effort to help others learn from my own experience, here is a list of what you need to do if you find yourself a victim of identity theft. Keep in mind this is just a starting point, and your circumstances might require additional steps.
- Place a fraud alert on your credit report. Any of the three credit bureaus (Transunion, Experian, Equifax) can do this for free and they will share it with the other two bureaus. It will last for 90 days, but you can renew it to keep criminals from trying to open new accounts. If you really need to, you can freeze your credit but this will make using your credit for real transactions more difficult. Consider the damage and decide what is best for you.
- Check your credit report. Remember, you can check your credit report for free once a year. To do so, go online to annualcreditreport.com. If you do find out you have been a victim of identity theft and have a police report to send to the credit bureaus, you can get another free report in six months. Contact the individual credit bureau or bureaus for more information.
- File a report with the FTC. Visit identitytheft.gov to report identity theft and get an individualized recovery plan. This will help you take step-by-step actions towards recovering your credit card. It also can generate form letters that you can send certified mail to credit card companies and other financial institutions.
- Call the companies where you know fraud has occurred. Although this was very time consuming and sometimes getting to a fraud department took almost half an hour, it was the quickest way to resolve my problems. I also learned more about the thief, including that she had made a driver’s license with my current information on it, and that a police report had been filed by the department store where she tried to use it. Calling the companies also resulted in the hard inquires coming off much quicker than if I had just sent certified letters. It can take between 30 and 90 days, though, for the inquires to be removed from your record.
- Send certified letters. In order to have a paper trail of my work, I also sent certified letters which were responded to, but making those phone calls was definitely the fastest route.
- File a police report. If you know where the theft has occurred, you can file a police report. I honestly never was told where the thefts took place. To get all the information and receive copies of the applications that were falsely made in my name, I had to send a series of personal documents including a copy of my social security card and a notarized form to each company. I did not elect to do this because at that point, I felt like way too much of my personal information was out there. If you do know that someone stole your information, for example at a fast food restaurant that you frequent, you could file a police report with local authorities.
- Notify the IRS. After about a week into this ordeal, I received a prepaid GreenDot bank card in the mail with my maiden name on it. I Googled the company and the result was a news report about people making false tax returns and using this type of card to get the money. I immediately was grateful that I had done our taxes in early February and already had received our return, but what if I hadn’t? Just to cover my bases, though, I filed a Form 14039, Identity Theft Affidavit. If you believe someone has filed a false return under your name, you should contact the IRS immediately.
- Check your Social Security statement. Visit socialsecurity.gov/statement to view your benefits and earnings statement. Be warned, though, that if you put a fraud alert on your credit report, you will have to go into the actual Social Security Administration local office to get a new pin and set up a secure online account. I had to do this with a 2- and 4-year-old in tow, and despite them pushing me through the cue quickly, it took over an hour to resolve in person.
- If you have been affected by a data breach, sign up for the free credit monitoring companies offer. I have been affected by the Anthem and OPM data breaches in the past five years and luckily signing up for the free credit monitoring saved me a lot of time. I receive updates every time something new appears on my credit report, and although it started to drive me crazy in the first few weeks that followed my identity theft, it was a one-stop shop to see all my information. I also have been able to add my children’s profiles so I can make sure their information is safe as well.
- Be prepared for all the feels. My shock at discovering someone had stolen my identity quickly turned to anger and fear. I was afraid this person had all my family members’ socials. I called my parents, brother and sister-in-law and told them to check their credit reports. I was worried for my husband and my kids, although I immediately made sure their information was secure (see tip 8). In today’s increasingly online world, not seeing the thief’s face or even knowing where your identity is being falsely used, really breeds paranoia. All I could do was take one day at a time and tackle each fraudulent application or account one by one.
So, as you file your tax return or make a large purchase, consider that spring cleaning should include dusting off your credit report. Get your free annual report from each of the three credit bureaus. Review the information carefully and make sure you keep records of large purchases and new accounts. Keep your passwords private and secure, and always check for the little lock icon on your internet browser’s toolbar when you are providing personal information online.
How do you keep your personal information private online?