When Your Identity is Stolen: Ten Things to Know

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You’ve just been turned down for a home equity loan. You got a call from an obnoxious bill collector about an account you don’t recognize. You’ve noticed you’re no longer receiving the usual five credit card offers per day. If your credit is generally good, you may have had your identity stolen. If you are experiencing serious harassment or been arrested based on someone else’s criminal activities, getting a lawyer makes sense. Otherwise, you probably can handle the mess yourself. here are some things to get you started.

1. Time, patience, and a feeling of security. You'll lose all of them when your identity is stolen. In most cases, however, you won’t lose much money if you respond quickly and tenaciously.

2. Call each credit agency.* Report you’ve been a victim of identity theft. Request a free copy of your credit report, to which you’re entitled in fraud situations. Ask that a fraud alert and victim’s statement be placed in your file, helping prevent additional loss—but also hindering your legitimate efforts to obtain credit.

3. Create a log. Use a spiral-bound notebook so little pieces of paper don’t disappear. For every call or other task, record the details, the time spent, to whom you spoke, and their contact information.

4. File a police report. You'll need a police report or case number and contact information for credit agencies and creditors. Don’t expect justice, however.

5. Inspect your credit reports. Note everything that looks wrong (including former job listings and addresses—the thief probably listed some), and send a letter listing errors to each agency. They are required to correct and send you a new, free report. Repeat if necessary.

6. Contact each account’s fraud department. Close the questionable account (ask that closure be noted as “at customer’s request”). Frustration alert: to speak to customer service, you’re required to enter the relevant account number, which you probably don’t have because somebody else opened the account. If stymied, call a different department and ask to be transferred. Then always get the direct number and your contact’s name.

7. Make friends with a notary public. You'll have to file an affidavit (a sworn written statement) with every credit account involved. Some will accept the form on the Federal trade commission (FTC) website; others will want something different. Regardless, it’ll probably have to be notarized (look in the yellow pages), for which you will pay a fee.

8. Copy everything you mail. Send it certified, return receipt requested. Keep copies in a folder.

9. There’s more?! Enter your case information in the FTC identity fraud database. Contact every agency appropriate to your circumstances. If someone is using your social security number, alert the social security administration. If you think your driver’s license or passport was used or stolen, contact your local department of motor vehicles or the u.s. state Department, respectively. If someone opened a post office box in your name, contact the postal service.

10. On the bright side. Losses from theft are tax-deductible. If you itemize, include all your costs (including your time).

*Numbers You’ll Need

  • Credit agencies:
    1. Equifax: 800-525-6285 or www.equifax.com
    2. Experian: 888-397-3742 or www.experian.com
    3. TransUnion: 800-680-7289 or www.transunion.com
  • Federal Trade Commission - www.consumer.gov/idtheft
  • Identity Theft Hotline - 877-438-4338
  • Social Security Administration - www.socialsecurity.gov/oig/guidelin.htm
  • SSA Fraud Hotline - 800-269-0271
  • U.S. State Department - www.travel.state.gov/passport/index.html - 202-955-0430
  • U.S. Postal Service (to locate your local postal inspector) - www.usps.com/ncsc/locators/find-is.html - 800-275-8777

This article was excerpted from Nolo's Little Legal Companion. You can get a free copy by signing up for one of Nolo's Legal Newsletters.