Who Should I Contact if My Identity Has Been Stolen?

You may read different advice on who to call first when you believe your identity has been compromised or stolen. Some sources say to begin by reporting the crime to the police to establish a formal record, others suggest that you call your creditors, and still others say to notify the credit bureaus. Depending on your circumstances, begin in one of these two places:

  • If your existing bank or credit accounts have been compromised, call your bank or creditors first.

  • If you find out about accounts you've never heard of and didn't open, call the credit bureaus first.

Either way, don't wait long between the two calls.

Start recording everything that happens from now on. You want dates, times, names, badge numbers, phone numbers, and so on. Documentation is critical.

The Federal Trade Commission offers a booklet called Guide for Assisting Identity Theft Victims. Originally intended for lawyers helping clients deal with theft issues, it is a great self-help guide.

Canceling your cards

If your credit or debit cards have been compromised, call the card issuers, ask for the fraud department, and have the cards cancelled immediately. You can find the phone number on your monthly statements, in your terms-and-conditions brochure, or on the card issuer's website.

If you're away from home when you find out the bad news, use a business center computer — don't wait until you get home to call. If you have the card, look for the toll-free customer service number on the back of the card.

A small comfort: Your liability on stolen credit card accounts is relatively low — just $50 maximum per card.

For ATM and debit cards, your maximum liability is $50 if you report the loss within 48 hours of noticing it, but the liability can be $500 or even the full amount of your accounts (including any overdraft protection) if you delay too long.

Getting in touch with the credit bureaus

If you call just one of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion) to report identity theft, a 90-day fraud alert is placed on all three of your credit files within 24 hours. A fraud alert can make it more difficult for a thief to get credit in your name because it tells creditors to follow certain procedures to protect you.

Fraud alerts aren't foolproof, and compliance by lenders can be spotty. Consider putting a credit freeze on your credit reports until you know how severe the identity theft damage is. A "frozen" credit report can't be pulled to issue new credit without your express permission, shutting off access to your information much more completely. You can always thaw your accounts later.

You can also add a victim's statement to your credit report. This statement informs the people who view your report that the information in your file has a potential problem and that they should be wary of making any decisions based on that information.

Adding a victim's statement to your report may motivate creditors to suspend existing accounts that weren't affected until they can determine that you're safe again, which may keep you from using your accounts until you can speak with the creditors.

After you notify the credit bureau of your situation, you'll receive a free credit report from each of the bureaus. Be sure to keep a copy of all reports.

Contacting the Federal Trade Commission

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the nation's number one consumer protection agency and supports an entire department that handles identity theft issues.

Call the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline at 877-438-4338 (877-ID-THEFT). Contacting the FTC bolsters your claims regarding unauthorized credit card charges or accounts opened by thieves in your name. It has a comprehensive written Theft Affidavit Form that you can print out and use as evidence that you are not responsible for the fraud.

While many companies accept this affidavit, others may have their own forms. The FTC Complaint Assistant is an electronic version that walks you through a detailed form to use when disputing accounts or charges with creditors or when filing a police report in addition to giving the FTC information about the theft.

Notifying the police

A crime has been committed, so you need to call the police and report it. Plus, some of the people you'll be dealing with may require a police report to take action.

The police report is also a way for others in the process to get a straight, consistent story from a third party about what happened and when. Be sure to get a copy of the report or report number as soon as it's available.

Here's how the police reporting process works:

  1. Contact your local police station if you suspect that someone is using your identity.

  2. File the report, providing all the facts and circumstances.

  3. Get the police report number with the date, time, police department, location, and name of the officer writing the report.

    You'll likely need to provide this info when dealing with insurance claims, credit card companies, or lenders or collectors to clear your account.

  4. Be persistent but polite if the police seem reluctant to take your statement.

    If your local police are reluctant to file a report, you can remind them that, without a police report, credit bureaus may not block fraudulent items on your credit report, and the lack of a formal police report may inadvertently help a crook.

    If your police department still doesn't want to file a report, contact your state's attorney general's office for assistance.

Alerting the post office

Many identity theft cases result from unauthorized and illegal access to information via the U.S. mail. Tampering with the mail is a federal crime. If you think that your mail may have played a role in the theft of your identity, contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and report your concerns. Call 877-876-2455 or go to their website.

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