Identity Theft: What it is, What to Do

Reading time: 6 minutes

Highlights:

  • It may be helpful to familiarize yourself with the warning signs of potential identity theft
  • If you believe your information has been stolen and used fraudulently, there are some steps you can take
  • Consider placing a fraud alert or security freeze on your credit reports - both are free

Identity theft occurs when someone gets or steals your personal information. The information can then be used to open credit accounts in your name or receive benefits, such as employment, insurance or housing. Identity theft may impact your credit reports and credit scores.

Signs of Identity Theft   

Signs of identity theft might include:

  • Receiving bills for items you did not buy, accounts you don’t recognize, or medical services you did not use
  • Charges on your credit card or bank statements you don’t believe are yours
  • Notification that an unfamiliar account has been turned over to a collections agency, or receiving calls from debt collectors about a debt that isn’t yours
  • Unexplained withdrawals from your bank account
  • You stop receiving bills or other mail
  • Notification that more than one tax return was filed in your name
  • Denial of credit because of the fraudster’s actions

Identity Theft Victim? Steps to Take

If you believe your information may have been stolen and used fraudulently, it can be hard to know what to do and where to report it. So, here are a few things to consider if you believe you're a victim of identity theft:

  • Contact the company or companies where you believe the fraud occurred, and let them know you believe your identity may have been compromised.

  • Check your credit reports. Request copies of your credit report from all three nationwide credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- and keep an eye out for any information that’s inaccurate or incomplete, or unfamiliar accounts and addresses. You can get a free copy of your credit report at each nationwide credit bureau once every 12 months from www.annualcreditreport.com. You can also create a myEquifax account and get two free Equifax credit reports each year. In addition, you can click "Get my free credit score" on your myEquifax dashboard and enroll in Equifax Core Credit™ for a free monthly Equifax credit report and a free monthly VantageScore® 3.0 credit score, based on Equifax data. A VantageScore is one of many types of credit scores.

  • Consider placing an initial one-year fraud alert on your credit reports. Fraud alerts serve as a “red flag” to those who pull your credit reports that you may be a victim of identity theft. They encourage companies to take additional steps to verify your identity before granting credit in your name. Fraud alerts are free, and you only need to contact one of the three nationwide credit bureaus to have a fraud alert placed on your credit reports -- that bureau will contact the other two. You can create a myEquifax account online to place a fraud alert on your Equifax credit report. You can also download this form for instructions on mailing your request or call Equifax at (888) 836-6351. 

  • Consider freezing or locking your credit reports. A lock and a security freeze have the same impact on your credit reports, but they aren’t the same thing. Both generally restrict certain access to your credit reports. Unless you temporarily lift or permanently remove a security freeze, or unlock your credit reports, they can’t be accessed to open new accounts - with certain exceptions. Find out more information about security freezes and credit report locks.

  • Submit an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission online at www.identitytheft.gov. By reporting your theft online, you can receive an identity theft report and a recovery plan. If you create an account on the website, you can update your plan, track progress and receive form letters to send to creditors.

  • File a police report with your local law enforcement agency. A police report provides you with a document saying you’ve been a victim, which can be helpful – when requesting a 7-year extended fraud alert on your credit reports, for instance. This type of fraud alert requires a police or FTC Identity Theft Report. To request an extended fraud alert on your Equifax credit report, download this form for instructions.

  • Report certain types of identity theft to specific agencies. For instance, you can contact your health insurance company’s fraud department or the Medicaid fraud office to report medical identity theft, when someone gets medical care or medications in your name, or report tax identity theft to the Internal Revenue Service and your state’s department of taxation or revenue. You might also consider notifying your state Attorney General or consumer protection department, as they may have resources to assist you.

  • Monitor your accounts for any suspicious activity, including changes and charges you don’t recognize.

The FTC advises you to keep a record of the calls you make and the people you speak to, and keep copies of any letters you send or receive. It’s also a good idea to keep a written record of other actions you take, such as closing accounts or disputing charges.

What Does Being a Victim of Identity Theft Mean for Me?

Could it hurt my credit scores? 

Unfortunately, being a victim of identity theft means your credit scores may be negatively impacted. Thieves could open new lines of credit or credit cards in your name -- and fail to pay the bills. As debt accumulates and payments are missed, your scores may be negatively affected, because of the payment history associated with the accounts or the increase in your credit utilization. Learn more about what actions can affect credit scores.

After you report the fraud, you can work with collection agencies and banks to get any fraudulent collection accounts, late payments and balances removed from your credit reports. You can also file a dispute with the three nationwide credit bureaus. Visit our dispute page to learn how to file a dispute with Equifax. 

Am I on the hook for the money?

Per the Fair Credit Billing Act, most credit card companies have protections for those affected by identity theft, like zero-liability policies. The law also sets the maximum liability for unauthorized charges at $50. 

Fraudulent ATM, debit cards and electronic transfers are protected under the Electronic Transfer Fund Act. However, it's important to act fast to avoid charges. If you report your debit or ATM card as lost or stolen before anyone uses it, you're off the hook for any fraudulent charges. Otherwise, if you report your card as lost or stolen within two days of learning of the loss or theft, your maximum liability for any unauthorized charges will be $50. If you report the card as lost or stolen between two days after learning of the loss or theft, but less than 60 days after your statement is sent to you, your liability is $500. If you report a card lost or stolen more than 60 days after your statement is sent to you, your liability is unlimited.

If you are a victim of identity theft, consider keeping a security freeze or fraud alert on your credit reports while you work to undo any damage. Being vigilant against signs of identity theft and catching the theft or fraud early can help keep the damages to a minimum.