How Can I Tell if I Am A Victim of Identity Theft?
Since recovering from identity theft can be such a long, time consuming and expensive process, the best defense is a good offense, and that means taking steps to spot potential identity theft problems before they can do a great deal of damage. Perhaps the most important thing consumers can do to protect themselves is to check their credit reports at least once every year. A recently enacted law entitles every consumer in the country to a free copy of his or her credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies – TransUnion, Experian and Equifax – making it easier than ever to check your financial reputation.
Better yet, everything can be done online, quickly and easily, from the comfort of your own home. A good place to start is at the websites of the three credit reporting agencies mentioned above. These websites will provide consumers with valuable instructions on how to obtain their free credit report each year.
It is also a good idea to check your own credit report before making a major purchase, such as a car, or applying for a home mortgage loan. Pulling a copy of your own credit report will help to avoid any hassles and allow you to clear up any erroneous information. The nominal fee you may have to pay will be more than repaid in time saved and in peace of mind.
Pulling that credit report, whether as part of your annual financial review or in preparation for a major purchase, is also the best way to protect yourself from identity theft, and the best way to detect any fraud attempts that have already occurred.
As you review your credit report, be sure to look carefully at the section that shows credit inquiries and new accounts. If there is an account you do not recognize, contact the bank or financial institution in question immediately and notify them that you did not authorize this account. Be sure to follow up that phone call with a written letter as well. This will help to create the paper trail that is essential to recovering from identity theft. If you see a credit inquiry you did not authorize, be sure to contact the institution who made it for clarification. If a satisfactory explanation cannot be provided, let the institution know that you suspect an attempt at identity theft.
If identity theft is suspected, it is vital that you place a fraud alert on all three of your credit reports. These fraud alerts can be placed by contacting the credit reporting agencies directly. It is best to communicate this information in writing, again to preserve that all important paper trail.
What Can an Identity Theft Victim Do?
Sometimes, despite our best efforts at protection, the worst happens and identity theft occurs. If you do find yourself a victim of identity theft, it is important, as state above, to place a fraud alert on your credit reports. It is also important to notify your major creditors, including your mortgage lender, the bank holding your car loan, and the like, that you have been a victim of identity theft. This will provide these institutions with advance warning to be on the lookout for any suspicious activity, and it will help protect you as you go forward.
After you have confirmed that you are a victim of identity theft, it is important to carefully comb your credit reports for any suspicious activity. Be sure to flag any suspicious activity and provide it to the credit reporting agency immediately. Any accounts that have been opened fraudulently should be immediately closed, and the issuing banks notified that the account was not authorized. Any fraudulently obtained credit card accounts should be closed in a similar manner.
When you communicate with these financial institutions, it is important to put everything in writing. A phone call is a good first step, but it is only a first step. You can follow up with an email as well, but it is always a good idea to write a good old fashioned letter to the banks and other creditors in question, being sure to get the proper address provided for disputes. Always keep copies of all the letters you send. For extra protection, you may want to send all that mail certified, and keep a copy of all the certified mail receipts you receive.
As you can see, documentation is vitally important when it comes to recovering your good name from the identity thieves. It is important to carefully document every step you take as the process moves forward. It is important to fully document each conversation with the affected banks, creditors and financial institutions, being sure to capture such information as the name of the customer service representative, any agreements that were made and what steps will be necessary to recover your good name.
Identity Theft Glossary
As you move forward with your identity theft recovery, you are likely to hear a number of confusing terms. The banking and credit reporting industry uses their own unique language, and it is important for consumers to be able to understand this sometimes confusing terminology. This glossary is intended to cover some of the most frequently used terms in the industry.
Fraud Alert – A fraud alert is a kind of flag which can be placed on your account with the credit reporting and consumer agencies. This flag informs these agencies that you are to be notified as part of any credit approval process. This will help reduce the possibility of further damage in the event of identity theft.
Identity Theft – Identity theft, also called identity fraud, occurs when a criminal obtains key personal data, such as a consumer’s Social Security number, date of birth, bank account number, etc., in an effort to impersonate that individual. With that information, the criminal can open new credit card accounts, obtain loans, and perform other financial transactions, all while pretending to be the victim of the fraud.
Mail Fraud– Mail fraud is any fraud or theft committed using the U.S. Postal Service. Examples of mail fraud include stealing mail or perpetrating a fraud that uses the mail service.
Medical Identity Theft – Medical identity theft is an offshoot of standard identity theft, but this crime focuses on medical instead of financial information. Those engaged in this crime will use the medical information and identity of another person in order to obtain insurance, file false insurance claims or commit other similar crimes.
Phishing – Phishing is usually done through fraudulent emails – emails which appear to be from a legitimate source like a bank, credit card company, brokerage firm or online auction. The goal of phishing is to trick consumers into revealing personal information, which can then be used to commit identity fraud.
Skimming – Skimming is a sophisticated method criminals use to steal the personal information stored on credit cards, ATM cards, driver’s licensees and other items which contain magnetic strips. Skimmers have sometimes been used by employees of restaurants, retail stores, gas stations and other businesses. These devices are designed to look like a regular credit card reader, but they are in fact used to replicate the information contained on the card’s magnetic strip. This information can then be used to make duplicate cards, which are then used fraudulently.