WHAT TO DO IF YOUR IDENTITY IS STOLEN: A COMPLETE GUIDE
Every year millions of Americans are victimized by consumer fraud. The Federal Trade Commission’s
Consumer Sentinel Network Databook revealed that more than 1.4 million people were victims of
identity theft in 2021, up from 650,000 in 2019. And these are only the reported numbers. With these
reports on the rise, it’s critical to know what to do if your identity is stolen and how to minimize your
Through no fault of your own, your personal information can be stolen and used in unlawful ways. An
identity thief may empty your bank account, max out your credit cards, open new lines of credit in your
name, or otherwise ruin your financial future.
No One is Totally Safe from Identity Theft
The independent financial research company, Javelin Strategy and Research prepares an annual
consumer fraud report. In 2020, Javelin reported that identity fraud cost consumers approximately $56
billion. According to the data protection company Proofpoint, 33% of Americans have faced ID theft
during their lives. That’s a lot of people wondering what to do if your identity is stolen. With our vast
experience helping ID theft victims, we have the answers.
Realizing your identity was stolen can be shocking and overwhelming. To help you navigate this
unfortunate ordeal, our identity theft attorneys created this strategic guide. These steps explain what to
do if your identity is stolen depending on the type of ID theft you are facing:
Quick Reference Outline
- Are You at Risk of Identity Fraud?
- Signs Your Identity Has Been Stolen
- Here’s What to do if Your Identity is Stolen. Detailed steps for:
- Reporting ID Theft – FTC and Police
- Important Tips for What to Do if Your Identity is Stolen
- When to Contact an Identity Theft Attorney
Are You at Risk of Being an Identity Theft Victim?
Unfortunately, the short answer is yes. Regardless of how little time you spend online, your personal information is vulnerable to hackers, scammers, spoofers, and thieves. Identity fraud can occur when:
- Your ATM or debit card is physically stolen,
- The information from your credit or debit card is “skimmed” at a point of purchase, pay-at-the-pump gas station, or ATM,
- Your personal information is stolen during a corporate data breach, or
- You are tricked into disclosing details to someone posing as your bank or credit card representative, among other devious scams.
Signs Your Identity Has Been Stolen
First, some of these situations can happen without ID theft. You may forget that you applied for a new credit card, or a family member may have bought something without telling you. Regardless, never ignore these potential signs. Always contact the business involved to verify what happened. The sooner you catch a problem, the less trouble you’ll face.
You may be dealing with identity theft if:
- A bill arrives for something you didn’t buy,
- You receive a credit card you never requested or a call about an application you didn’t submit,
- You find unfamiliar transactions such as bank transfers, credit card charges, or unusual entries in your credit reports,
- You’re notified about suspicious account logins or password reset requests you didn’t initiate,
- You can’t log into your accounts,
- Your credit score suddenly drops,
- Debt collectors call or write about debts you didn’t incur,
- You are rejected (or approved) for a loan you never applied for,
- Your credit card company notifies you about suspicious activity in your account,
- Your regular bills or credit card statements don’t arrive on time,
- The post office tells you that your mail has been forwarded to a different address,
- Your debit or credit card is rejected for lack of funds when you know your account is in good standing,
- You apply for a loan, but you’re rejected due to a bad credit history when it should be good,
- The IRS rejects your tax return because someone else already filed under your Social Security number. Or your income doesn’t match because an employer you have never worked for reported paying you income,
- You are denied medical treatment or insurance benefits because of a pre-existing condition you don’t have, or
- Medical bills are sent to you for services you didn’t receive.
When facing identity fraud, time is of the essence. Keep reading to learn what to do if your identity is stolen.
Here’s What to do if Your Identity is Stolen – A Step-by-Step Guide
First, don’t panic. Understand that addressing and clearing up identity fraud will take time, patience, and tenacity. However, you should still act quickly. Most consumer protection laws place some responsibility on the ID theft victim to notify affected businesses as soon as possible to help prevent further losses.
Depending on how your stolen identity was used, here is what to do if your identity is stolen.
Your Credit Reports Contain Unfamiliar Entries
Using your personal information, a thief could open accounts or loans in your name, run up debts that are never paid, or otherwise affect your credit history. To find and address ID theft issues in your credit history:
- Request a free copy of your credit report from the three major credit reporting agencies (CRAs)–Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. You can contact each CRA individually or go to AnnualCreditReport.com to request all three reports.
- Carefully review every report for errors, unfamiliar entries, and other red flags that might indicate identity fraud.
- Immediately report any problems to the CRA that prepared the report. You can call first, but always follow up with a written dispute. We do not recommend using the credit bureaus’ online dispute portals because they limit the information you can provide.
- File your written dispute and include copies of your credit report and any documents that support your claim of ID theft. Circle the entries in dispute and explain what happened.
- Request the CRA to investigate your dispute and correct inaccurate information.
- Request that any ID theft-related information is blocked from your report and not released to any potential creditors in the future.
- Place a fraud alert in your credit report. Contact at least one of the 3 CRAs and request a free fraud alert. This alert lasts one year and notifies anyone who pulls your credit report that you suspect identity theft. The CRA you contact is obligated to advise the other two CRAs, but you should confirm that all three reports contain a fraud alert.
- Consider placing a free credit freeze on your reports. For a freeze, you must contact each CRA individually. During a credit freeze, no one can request your credit report or open accounts without your permission. A credit freeze lasts for one year and can be renewed for seven years at your request. You can cancel or lift the freeze at any time. A credit freeze should not affect your credit score
- After you have disputed fraudulent credit information with the CRA, you can also send a letter to the business that provided the fraudulent information. The FTC offers a letter template for this step. Be sure to ask the business to remove or correct the information with the CRA.
- Send your dispute to the CRA and the letter to the business along with supporting documents by certified mail. Keep a copy of everything you send and request a return receipt, so you know when it was received.
Your Bank Account Statements Show Unauthorized Transfers
Using a stolen ATM card, debit card, or online banking information, a thief can access your financial accounts. It’s important to thoroughly review your personal account statements and look for unfamiliar transactions of any amount that you did not authorize. Your potential losses are limited by law, but the amount depends on how quickly you act.
If you suspect identity fraud in your personal banking accounts, follow these steps:
- Review all account statements for anything that could be related to ID fraud.
- Contact the bank within 2 business days to report and dispute any unfamiliar transactions. You can call first, but always follow up in writing.
- Your written dispute should include copies of your account statement with the questionable transactions circled, an explanation of why you think you are a victim of ID theft, and any supporting documents. Request an investigation and a refund of any money taken from your account without your authority.
- Send your written dispute and supporting documents by certified mail and request a return receipt. Keep copies of everything you send.
- Request a fraud alert and consider freezing or closing any affected accounts. Open new accounts using different passwords and PINs.
- Ask the bank to not report any ID theft-related information to the CRAs. Once your information is corrected (when the ID theft is resolved) ask them to report the corrected details to the CRAs.
Your Credit Card Statement Reveals Unauthorized Charges
When your credit card information is exposed, a thief can access your account and max out your credit limit. Some credit cards also allow cash withdrawals, usually with high fees and interest attached.
Let’s review what to do if your identity was stolen and you think your credit card accounts may be at risk. Start with the following actions:
- Review each of your account statements for unfamiliar charges. Even small amounts can be an indication of identity theft. A thief may test your account with small transactions to see if a larger transaction will clear later.
- Dispute any unauthorized or unfamiliar charges directly with the card issuer’s fraud department. Use the customer service number on your statement or card to start your dispute. Always follow up in writing. You have 60 days from the date of the statement to file your dispute but don’t wait that long.
- Send your written dispute with a copy of the account statement indicating the transactions in dispute. Include copies of all documents that support your identity theft claim and send everything by certified mail with a return receipt requested. Be sure to keep copies.
- In your written submission, request an investigation and the removal of the disputed charges. This is called a “charge back.”
- Consider placing a fraud alert, freezing, or closing the affected accounts to prevent further unauthorized charges. You can open new accounts and have new cards issued. Change your passwords, PINs, or other access methods.
- Ask the card issuers to not report the ID theft-related information to the CRAs. When your credit account is corrected, ask the credit card company to update your credit reports with the CRAs.
- Don’t forget about older or dormant accounts you may not use often. Check your credit report to find all open accounts.
New Creditors Appear
With enough personal information, a thief can open a new credit card account, take out a new loan, or open a new bank account to transfer money. The best way to discover new creditors is to review your credit reports.
If you find new accounts or unfamiliar creditors follow these steps:
- Contact each company directly to dispute the account and close it.
- Request copies of applications or other documents related to the new credit account or related transactions. Your request must be in writing. The creditor will probably require a photo ID, a copy of a police report (see below), an FTC identity theft report (see below), or other proof of identity theft.
- You can call the creditor first, but always follow up in writing. Ask the new creditor to send a confirmation letter stating:
- The disputed account is not yours,
- You did not open it,
- You are not responsible to pay the debt, and
- They have removed the information from your credit report.
- Request copies of all relevant documents. This evidence will help build your legal case if you take legal action. It will also be helpful when you file an Identity Theft Report with the Federal Trade Commission and/or your local police. (More about these reports below.)
- Place a fraud alert with each new credit company and consider adding a credit freeze to your credit reports so no new lines of credit can be opened.
- If a debt collector is trying to make you pay a thief’s debt, ask for all supporting documents related to the disputed debt.
Medical ID Theft
When ID thieves use your personal identifying information to receive medical care, Medicare benefits, or insurance coverage, you are a victim of medical identity theft. This is what to do if your identity is stolen and you suspect medical ID fraud:
- Contact the Medicare fraud office if you have Medicare. Explain that you believe your personal information was stolen and dispute the charges or benefits paid to the thief.
- Notify your insurance companies and request complete records of all insurance transactions, EOBs, or other documents that may support your fraud claim.
- Call your medical providers to alert them about potential medical ID fraud. Follow up in writing and request copies of medical records that support your claim.
Tax ID Theft
Using your name, Social Security number, and date of birth, a thief may file a tax return under your identity. The IRS will notify you by mail—never by email, text, or phone. If your tax return is rejected, you need to know what to do if your identity is stolen and you are facing tax identity theft:
- Contact the IRS directly to respond to the rejection notice immediately. Explain that your information was used to file a fraudulent income tax return. If you have supporting documents, send copies along with your explanation as soon as possible. You may also need to submit a special Identity Theft Affidavit to support your tax identity theft claim.
- You will receive a six-digit number that you must use as your PIN when you file your tax returns in the future.
Government Benefits Identity Fraud
This category of ID fraud skyrocketed during the pandemic when thieves stole needy citizens’ information to apply for government benefits. Also, since so many people were out of work, unemployment benefits were targeted as well.
If you were denied government benefits because someone else already received your benefits, contact the specific department directly. For example:
- If unemployment benefits were stolen, contact your state unemployment office.
- If a thief applied for a job under your name, contact the business that took the employment application.
- If other government-based benefits were denied or stopped coming, reach out to that department to file a fraud alert.
Criminal ID Theft
If an ID thief has your driver’s license number, your full name, address, and date of birth, the criminal may impersonate you when they are facing arrest or criminal proceedings.
If criminal charges were filed under your name or an arrest warrant was issued using your personal information, you may need to clear up the criminal history created by the ID fraudster. Each state or local government has rules to address this problem. Contact a criminal defense attorney to help you if you are a victim of criminal identity theft.
What to do if Your Identity is Stolen Because Your Documents Were Taken
Maybe your purse or wallet was stolen by a pickpocket. If you carry your Social Security card and driver’s license, they are now in the thief’s possession. Follow these steps to recover your important documents:
- If an ID card, Birth Certificate, Death Certificate, Marriage License, or other important document was physically stolen, go to this site to replace it.
- If your Social Security card was stolen, contact Social Security directly. Explain the theft and request a new card.
If your driver’s license is gone, contact your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Find the proper link for your state here. Report the lost or stolen license and request a new license. Also, ask your local DMV to flag your license number in case the thief tries to impersonate you during a traffic stop or another criminal activity.
Reporting ID Theft – FTC and Local Police
As part of the identity theft recovery process, you can also report your situation to officials including the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and your local police department. The FTC and police will generate helpful reports to support your ID fraud claims when dealing with creditors or financial institutions. The reports also help build your case if you need to take legal action to protect your rights.
Filing an FTC Report
Contact the FTC online at IdentityTheft.gov to create an ID theft report and recovery plan to help you navigate the complicated process. Also, some creditors or businesses will request an FTC report to process your requests, so it’s important to complete this step.
The FTC also offers letter templates you can use to contact your credit card company, bank, and credit reporting agencies to dispute unauthorized transactions and inaccurate information.
Filing a Police Report
Some of your creditors may require a police report as proof of your identity theft claim. Also, if you know the thief or he used your personal information in connection with a crime or other police contact, you should file a police report. You’ll need to verify your identity by showing a government photo ID, proof of your current address, a copy of your FTC report, and any other proof to support your ID fraud claim. Be sure to keep a copy of the report.
General Tips for What to Do If Your Identity is Stolen
Beyond the specific actions listed above, follow these tips in all ID fraud situations:
- Keep track of every company you contact, Note the date, the person you spoke with, and any results. Keep copies of everything you send or receive including return receipts.
- Track your other actions such as closing accounts and filing disputes.
- Contact businesses where your info may be used in the future to let them know you’re an ID theft victim. Fraudsters can strike several times over many years. Be proactive.
- Change your passwords, PINs, and login information for all accounts. Use strong passwords and a password manager to keep track. Add passwords to any accounts that don’t already require them.
- Shred all documents that include your financial or personal information before disposing of them.
- Don’t carry your Social Security card with you.
- Contact all utility accounts held in your name to notify them about your ID theft. If an account was compromised, close it and open a new account with a new PIN and strong password.
- Delete your personal details including your address, phone number, and date of birth from social media and other online platforms.
- Use two-factor authentication on your accounts when possible. This requires the entry of a password and then a separate code that is sent to your phone, email, or text before allowing access to the account. A better alternative for the second step is facial recognition or fingerprint ID because of recent SIM Swap scams.
- Regularly review and monitor your account statements and credit reports because ID theft can reoccur over many years. Stay vigilant.
- Don’t ignore notifications, especially from credit card companies and financial institutions. They could be an early warning of a problem. Specifically, watch for alerts about password resets, unrecognized transactions, and account logins.
- Consider using a credit monitoring service. If your information was exposed in a corporate data breach, that company may offer free protection services. Also, your employer, insurance company, or credit card issuer may offer free or low-cost monitoring services.
When to Contact an Identity Theft Attorney
At Schlanger Law Group, we know victims of ID theft face stressful and frustrating challenges. We created this step-by-step checklist to explain exactly what to do if your identity is stolen. Our goal is to help guide you through the initial stages of recovery before you contact an identity theft attorney.
Unfortunately, even if you follow every recommended step as quickly as possible, you may reach an impasse when dealing with some companies. They may refuse to refund your stolen money or fail to reverse unauthorized transactions. Or they may completely ignore your disputes and requests for help.
If you can’t resolve these problems on your own, you need the unparalleled experience provided by the Schlanger Law Group team of identity theft attorneys. Our compassionate and responsive lawyers can walk you through your options and create a plan to help restore your finances and peace of mind.
Don’t Wait Another Day
Now that you know what to do if your identity is stolen, remember, the clock starts ticking when you discover the ID theft. The longer you wait to act, the more you stand to lose. Call (212) 500-6114 or click the green button below to schedule a free consultation today.
Schlanger Law Group LLP serves clients in New Jersey, New York, and throughout the United States with consumer protection, class action, credit reporting, and identity theft issues.