Identity theft affects over 15 million consumers every year. As much as we all like to think “This would never happen to me or my family!” the reality is that it just might. There are many resources online that instruct you on minimizing your risk exposure, using secure and unique passwords, and avoiding scheme websites and unscrupulous “phishers” in your inbox.
But what do you do if identity theft happens?
Step 1: Stop the bleeding.
Every day counts when it comes to minimizing the damage, so you must act fast. As soon as you learn about identity theft, notify the banks, credit card companies or other institutions that are directly affected. If you are looking for ideas that can make this step easier, invest a little time in maintaining a master list of all cards and bank accounts. Having a comprehensive inventory to start with will save you time and headache.
Next, put a fraud alert on your credit reports, so that lenders take extra steps to verify your identity before extending additional credit. The fraud alert is typically free for up to 90 days, although some agencies charge a fee to extend it beyond that period.
Some of you may opt for an even stronger layer of protection and freeze your credit reports. These steps prevent inquirers from obtaining your credit rating at all. As a result, new applications for credit will be denied because of lack of credit history. Every agency has its own set of rules around setting a credit freeze, relaxing it for legitimate reasons and removing it once the danger has passed. Keep in mind that the rules around credit freeze and related fees vary by state. And, if you are in the process of applying for jobs that include credit check as part of your background check, this may not be a good option for you.
Step 2: Assess and repair the damage.
Get your most recent credit report and go through it carefully. Any new unauthorized activity should be disputed immediately. Be prepared to provide supporting documentation if asked.
Continue to monitor your credit card and bank account statements. If you see unauthorized charges, call the card issuer as soon as possible. As long as you do this quickly, you are not responsible for those charges. If you want to catch unauthorized charges earlier, get in the habit of monitoring your transactions online on via an app. Some banks and cards also allow you to sign up for text alerts any time a charge is posted – which could allow you to block a fraudulent charge within minutes.
If your Social Security number has been compromised, call the Social Security Administration. Even if there is no evidence of fraudulent Social Security activity now, the thief could be planning to apply for a job, a driver’s license or healthcare coverage under your identity.
Finally, check in with the Postal Inspection Service if you have reason to believe that a fraudster may have filed a Change of Address form to divert your mail.
Step 3: Remain vigilant.
As much as you might look forward to being “done” with sorting through the fall-out of identity theft, it’s not time to relax just yet. Be sure to get your credit reports regularly and check them carefully.
Change all passwords and log-in credentials for online banking and bill payments. We all know that every point of log-in should have its own secure user name and password, but most people still opt for an easy-to-remember set or two that they use across different websites. Now is the time to clean it up. Sign for a password vault if you are unsure you will be able to remember all those passwords (1Password is a good option).
Remember that traditional bank accounts are not the only ones susceptible to theft. Your PayPal and eBay accounts, Amazon, Venmo, Google, Apple Pay and others all connect to your credit cards and/or banks – and we are often less strict about creating unique and strong passwords for them. Include those “alternative” accounts in your overall account inventory, strengthen passwords and enable two-step authentication (password followed by a text message to your cell phone) where available.
Finally, remember that identity theft happens to the best of us. Don’t allow yourself to spiral into judgment. It’s no use beating yourself up over something that has already happened! The best thing you can do is minimize the damage and remain vigilant going forward.
The views expressed herein are those of Natalia Autenrieth, as of the date above and are subject to change. This publication is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as a recommendation for any specific insurance product or service. Information has been collected from sources believed to be reliable, but has not been verified for accuracy. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Bryn Mawr Trust, its directors, officers, affiliates, and/or any/all of the contributors to this site. It does not constitute legal, tax, accounting, financial or investment advice. You are encouraged to consult with competent legal, tax, accounting, financial or investment professionals based on your specific circumstances. We do not endorse any third-party companies, products, or services described herein and assume no liability for your use of this information.