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A Pound of Cure—What to Do If You Are a Victim of Identity Theft

Don’t feel too bad if, despite your best efforts, you become a victim of identity theft. You are in good company. The list of prominent victims of identity theft includes Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Steven Spielberg, Ted Turner, Warren Buffet, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Robert DeNiro, Martha Stewart, Will Smith, and Ross Perot. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to respond to the theft of your identity and to minimize the damage:

  1. Put a fraud alert on your credit report. If you think that you might be the victim of identity theft, you can have a fraud alert placed on your credit report at the credit-reporting agencies. The alert stays on your report for up to 90 days but can be extended for up to seven years. When a fraud alert has been put on your credit report, you are entitled to a second free credit report during that year in order to monitor your credit for further irregularities. In the past, people placing a fraud alert on their credit reports found that for it to be effective, they had to call each of the three major credit-reporting agencies to have fraud alerts independently placed on each company’s record. Now, under FACTA (the federal Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act), all you need to do is call one of the credit-reporting agencies and they are required to notify the other two to place the fraud alert on your file. Unfortunately, fraud alerts are not always as effective as you might think. The law does not require businesses to check for fraud alerts before granting credit, and there are no penalties for companies failing to monitor credit reports for fraud alerts. Many companies do not even bother to check for fraud alerts, and due to technical procedural problems, notifying one of the credit-reporting agencies to place a fraud alert might not result in a fraud alert being placed on your credit report at the other two credit-reporting agencies.
  2. A better solution might be to place a credit freeze on your credit report. This service, available in all states, permits you to effectively seal your credit report from access by anyone (such as an identity thief with your Social Security number and other personal information) without the use of a PIN that you pick to make your credit report available. Thus, an identity thief is prevented from using your credit report to secure credit or open a new account in your name. Consumers Union has a very user-friendly Web site that can help you access the credit-freeze law for your particular state by going to www.consumersunion.org/campaigns/learn_more/003484indiv.html#MA. Even if you have not been a victim of identity theft, a credit freeze is a great preventive measure to take to protect yourself from identity theft.
  3. Go to the Federal Trade Commission Web site or to Chapter 21, “Form Letters,” to obtain the FTC’s ID Theft Affidavit, and use it to report the crime.
  4. Contact all your creditors by phone and then follow up with a letter sent by certified mail, return receipt requested. See Chapter 21 for a sample. Get new credit cards with new account numbers. Change your PIN and your passwords.
  5. Close tainted accounts. When opening new accounts with these creditors, use a password that is not easily connected with you. A word to the wise: Do not use your mother’s maiden name, or to be particularly safe, do not even use my mother’s maiden name. People think that their mother’s maiden name is difficult to find. It is not. It is on your birth certificate, a public record.
  6. When you close accounts, make sure that the accounts are designated as being closed at the customer’s request due to theft so that when information is transmitted to the credit-reporting bureaus, it is clear that the problems are not of your doing.
  7. Ask your creditors to notify each of the credit-reporting agencies to remove erroneous and fraudulent information from your file.
  8. If your checks are stolen, promptly notify your bank and have the account closed immediately. If your checking account is accessed by checks with forged signatures, you obviously have not authorized the withdrawals and should not be held responsible for money stolen from your account. However, if you neglect to monitor your account and fail to promptly notify your bank when there is an irregularity in your account or your checks are lost or stolen, you might be held partially responsible for your losses. It is not even necessary to have your checks physically stolen for you to become a victim. An identity thief armed with your name, checking account number, and bank routing information can use one of a number of inexpensive computer software programs to create checks for your account.
  9. Contact the various check-verification companies and ask that they, in turn, contact retailers who use their services, telling them not to accept checks from your accounts that have been accessed by identity thieves. Check-verification services are companies that maintain databases of bad check writers. Retailers using their services contact the verification service’s database before accepting checks. Among the companies that do check verification are CellCharge, CheckCare, and CrossCheck.
  10. To see whether checking accounts have been opened in your name, contact ChexSystems at www.consumerdebit.com to request a free copy of a report that lists all checking accounts in your name. If you find that an account has been opened in your name, contact the bank and instruct them to close the account.
  11. File a report with the police both where the fraud occurred and where you live. You might find police departments reluctant to accept your report, sometimes for technical legal jurisdictional reasons. Politely insist that they at least accept your report. Remind them that credit bureaus will prevent fraudulent accounts from appearing on your credit report if you can provide a police report. Give the police officer taking the report as much documentation as you have to support your claim, including the ID Theft Affidavit approved by the Federal Trade Commission that appears later in this book. When a police report has been filed, send a copy of it to each of the three major credit-reporting agencies.
  12. Be proactive. Contact your creditors where you have tainted accounts and get a written statement from each of them indicating that the account accessed by an identity theft has been closed and that the charges made to the accounts are fraudulent. Request that they initiate a fraud investigation. Find out what you are required to do to advance the investigation, such as providing them with a police report. A sample letter to your creditor requesting such a statement from your creditors is included in Chapter 21. These letters can be very helpful, particularly if the credit-reporting bureaus mistakenly resubmit the fraudulent charges on your credit report. Remember to get a written copy of your creditor’s completed investigation.
  13. Send copies of your creditors’ completed investigations to each of the three credit-reporting agencies. Ask them to send you a copy of your updated credit report in order to confirm that any erroneous and fraudulent information has been removed from your file.
  14. If fraudulent charges do appear on your credit report, notify the credit-reporting bureaus in writing that you dispute the information and request that such information be removed from your file. A sample letter is included in Chapter 21.
  15. If you are contacted by a debt collector attempting to collect a debt incurred by an identity thief in your name, write to the debt collector within 30 days of receiving the initial notice from the debt collector. Tell the debt collector that the debt is not yours and that you are a victim of identity theft. Send a copy of the identity theft report, police report, or other reports you might have completed. After you provide this information, the debt collector is required by law to cease collection efforts until they have verified the accuracy of the debt. Additionally, you should also contact the company for which the debt collector is attempting to collect the debt and explain to them that the debt is not yours, but rather is the result of identity theft. Also, ask them to provide you with details about the transaction creating the debt, including copies of documentation that might contain the signature of the identity thief. Finally, contact the credit-reporting agencies and ask that they block the incorrect information from appearing on your credit report. Details for how to do this can be found in the chapter on credit reports.
  16. If your driver’s license is possibly in the hands of an identity thief, you should cancel the license and get a new one.
  17. If your passport is lost or stolen, contact the State Department at www.travel.state.gov/passport to arrange to get another passport and to have it recorded that your passport has been lost or stolen.
  18. If your mail has been stolen and used to make you a victim of identity theft, the Postal Service will investigate the crime. Notify the postal service at your local post office.
  19. If an identity thief has used your identity to set up phony accounts for utilities such as phone, cable, electricity, or water, contact the utility provider and report the crime. Provide them with a copy of your identity theft report and close the account. You should also contact your state public utility commissioner’s office and inform them about the crime and provide them with your identity theft report so that they can investigate this as well.
  20. If your information has been used to obtain a student loan in your name, contact the school or the lender, provide them with the identity theft report, and ask them to close the loan. You should also report the crime to the U.S. Department of Education at www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/hotline.html.
  21. If your Social Security number has been misappropriated by an identity thief, contact the Social Security Administration at www.socialsecurity.gov, or by phone on their fraud hotline at 800-269-0271, or by mail at Social Security Administration Fraud Hotline, P.O. Box 17785, Baltimore, MD 21235.

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