Identity Theft FAQ
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No one likes feeling used or violated, especially when you've also been cheated out of money or had your credit damaged through no action of your own. Identity theft not only combines those two unpleasant experiences, but also feels like a personal attack against you, even when it's perpetrated by a stranger.
If you're the victim of identity theft, or just want to learn more about it, you're sure to have plenty of questions, some of which will be answered here.
Identity Theft Basics
When dealing with identity theft, there are a few key words, phrases, and concepts to get the hang of before delving deeper into the issue.
What is identity theft?
While the definition of identity theft is fairly straightforward, its implications are much more complicated.
Identity theft is the misuse of another person's identifying information. Typically, it involves the use of someone's Social Security number or other information to:
- Open credit or bank accounts.
- Steal money from the victim's existing accounts.
- Make purchases.
- Receive medical care.
- Get a job and/or visa.
- Rent an apartment.
What do ID thieves look for?
Any information that singles you out or is unique to you will be a big target for identity thieves. In general, the more specific and personal the information is meant to be, the better it will be for identity theft.
Some major data identity thieves are typically after include your:
- Name, address, and birthday.
- Social Security number.
- Bank account numbers.
- Credit and debit card numbers.
- Credit card verification value (CVV) numbers.
- Personal identification numbers (PINs).
- Passport number.
- Driver's license number.
How is personal information lost?
Identity theft used to be largely perpetrated with physical documents obtained through stealing someone's mail, wallet, or purse.
With the vast expansion of the internet, many personal records are now also available online, and identity thieves can hack websites to gain the same type of information.
ID thieves are constantly adapting their methods, in an attempt to stay one step ahead of law enforcement. In general, they employ a variety of ways to gain your personal information, including but not limited to:
- Dumpster diving to find mail with sensitive information.
- Stealing mail from mailboxes.
- Impersonating authority figures, such as:
- Loan officers.
- Using “insider" access at work to target clients or fellow employees.
- Looking over your shoulder while you're on your laptop or at an ATM.
- Copying credit or debit card information from a customer during a purchase.
- Looking through websites where personal information is offered freely.
- Hacking websites or databases.
- Purchasing fraudulent identities online or on the black market.
What is an account takeover?
Account takeover is the term applied once an identity thief has used someone's bank or credit card account to make a purchase or withdraw money.
They are usually discovered when someone notices extra charges or missing money on their monthly bank or credit card statement.
What is an Identity Theft Affidavit?
Your Identity Theft Affidavit is the official complaint you file with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which oversees identity theft cases. It can be used to report:
- Identity theft.
- Attempted identity theft.
- A data breach.
- A lost wallet or purse.
Start the process of reporting identity theft to FTC online to obtain and complete your affidavit.
What is an Identity Theft Report?
An Identity Theft Report is a combination of documents you can obtain after you've become the victim of identity theft. It includes your:
- Identity Theft Affidavit (see above).
- Police report, filed with the department in the community where the theft took place.
You can use your Identity Theft Report to help:
- Clear up or correct your credit report.
- Prevent fraudulent debts from reappearing.
- Block companies from using debt collectors against you for fraudulent charges.
For more information on how to best utilize your identity theft report, visit our page on identity theft.
What are the major credit bureaus?
While there is an array of credit reporting companies in America, there are three major credit bureaus. They are:
These institutions are singled out due to the sheer number of banks, credit card issuers, and other businesses they work with.
They are all publicly traded and for-profit companies; however they must follow the rules of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).
Identity Theft Protection
Once you've realized that you're a victim of identity theft, you can employ several methods to lock down your information and protect it against further exploitation.
How do I protect my ID?
There are several initial steps to take after suffering ID theft, including:
- Filing an official complaint with the FTC.
- Changing all PINs and online passwords—especially for your bank and credit card accounts.
- Contacting one of the major credit bureaus to ask for a fraud alert.
- Filing a police report.
Read our Identity Theft page for more information.
How do I close falsified accounts?
The FTC recommends that the first step you should take toward closing falsified accounts is obtaining an Identity Theft Report (see above).
Once you have that documentation settled, you can contact the fraud department for every business where your information was falsely used, and:
- Explain the situation.
- Ask them to close the account(s).
- Ask them to send you a letter confirming:
- The account isn't yours.
- You're not liable for the charges.
- The information was removed from your credit report.
NOTE: The businesses may require you to send them a copy of your Identity Theft Report or to complete certain paperwork.
How do I remove fraudulent charges?
This is something else to bring up while talking to the fraud department of every company where your information was untruthfully used.
First, you must gather all the facts you can about the situation, such as:
- How many false accounts were open.
- How many fraudulent purchases were made.
- What amount of money was spent or taken.
Ask each business to remove the proper charges and to send you a letter confirming they've taken such action.
Identity Theft Prevention
Identity theft is a very upsetting crime to be the victim of, but there are some precautions you can take to help prevent it from happening to you in the future.
How do I stop future identity theft?
There are a few easy ways to beef up your personal information security, such as:
- Shredding mail that contains sensitive information, such as:
- Your name and address.
- Credit card offers.
- Credit card checks/reports.
- Insurance-related material.
- Statements and invoices.
- Encrypting e-mails and/or computer files that contain personal or account information.
- You can use firewalls or anti-spyware programs.
- Protecting your smartphone.
- Using random/difficult-to-guess passwords, and changing them frequently.
- Keeping all sensitive physical documents in a locked drawer or file.
- Keeping a close eye on your credit reports.
- Never carrying any more information on your person than you need to, including:
- Credit and debit cards.
- Birth certificates.
- Social Security card.
How can I monitor my credit report?
Keeping a keen eye on your credit report can help you detect any early signs of identity theft.
You can monitor your credit report in one of two ways: either by doing it yourself or using an identity theft protection company.
What is an identity protection company?
ID protection companies can help you:
- Lock, flag, or freeze your credit reports.
- Place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your reports.
- Automatically renew or update your alerts.
Many of these businesses are consumer reporting companies. Typically, they will track your credit report and send you updates about recent account activity.
Some companies will also take on a limited power of attorney to help you rebuild your identity. This will let them act on your behalf when dealing with:
- Consumer reporting companies.
- Other information sources.
Other businesses will offer additional services, such as:
- Removing your name from various mailing lists.
- Guaranteeing reimbursement against future identity theft losses.
- Figuring out which of your personal information has been exposed online.
How can I do a DIY credit check?
You are legally entitled to a free credit report every year from each of the major credit bureaus under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA).
You will also get access to a free credit report each time a fraud alert is detected on one of your accounts.
There are a number of websites and services available to help you get your free credit reports. To get a better idea of your credit report at any given time, you can space out your requests, asking for a report from one agency every few months.
What is an extended fraud alert?
An extended fraud alert will give you access to your credit report for up to 7 years. They are guaranteed by federal law and free to put in place and remove if someone has stolen your identity.
To place an extended fraud alert on your credit report:
- Contact each of the major credit bureaus.
- Explain the situation.
- Make sure to request an extended fraud alert.
- Fill out any necessary paperwork, and keep copies for your Identity Theft Report.
What is a credit freeze?
A credit freeze is also known as a security freeze. It will restrict your access to your credit report.
In order to get a credit freeze placed on your account, you need to:
- Contact the major credit bureaus.
- Ask for a credit freeze.
- Pay any fees associated with credit freezes.
A credit freeze can be effective at preventing ID thieves from opening fraudulent accounts in your name because most creditors will need to see your credit report before authorizing a new account.
Without access to your file, many creditors will not open a new account for you.
A credit freeze will not negatively impact your credit score, however you will need to temporarily lift the freeze to:
- Access your free annual credit reports.
- Open a new account.
- Apply for a job.
- Rent an apartment.
- Buy insurance.
In these instances, it is possible to allow access to your report only for a specific time or to a specific person. You can lift the freeze by contacting the credit bureaus, and you may also need to pay a fee.
NOTE: A credit freeze will NOT remove your name from credit card offer mailing lists, and certain entities will still have access to your credit information, including:
- Your existing creditors.
- Debt collectors acting on behalf of your creditors.
- Government agencies, in the case of:
- Court orders.
- Administrative orders.
- Search warrants.