You may think getting your identity stolen is a “one in a million” type of thing—maybe it does happen to people, but the chance of it actually happening to you is extremely rare. You might think victims of identity theft must be careless with their ID or credit card information or vulnerable to online scams or “phishing”—responding to those fake emails that appear to be from trusted institutions.
Yet multiple sources report that there are 15 million cases of identity theft each year just in the U.S. alone. Assuming approximately 250 million adults in the country, that means that six of every 100 adults are victimized each year.
I know for a fact that identity theft can happen to even the most careful person—because it happened to me several years ago. And make no mistake about it: your life becomes an emotional roller coaster, and it can take months or even years to fully clear your name.
In my case, the thief bought high-value gift cards at a number of big-box stores using my identification information—including my birthdate and social security number—over the course of a weekend in a geographic location far removed from me. Thankfully, my credit card company alerted me to the potential fraud because I was simultaneously using my real card elsewhere myself.
Yet the damage was done. When your identity is stolen, the faster you can respond, the better chance you have to preserve your credit. Here are the steps the federal government recommends you take immediately if your identity has been stolen:
- Close or freeze every credit card you have with banks, retailers and other merchants.
- Change logins, passwords and PINs for each of your investment and credit accounts.
- Call your local police department to report the crime.
- Contact any of the three major credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax or Transunion—to place a fraud alert on your credit and freeze your credit report. Once you have contacted one of these bureaus, they are obligated to inform the other two.
- Get a free copy of your credit report to see the specific incidents where fraud has occurred.
- Contact each merchant that has unfairly charged you for a fraudulent transaction to explain the situation and request a reversal.
- Report the case to the federal government at identitytheft.gov.
This process will be painstaking and frustrating. You will spend hours on your computer or making calls and likely face a number of dead ends along the way. Be sure to follow up regularly by checking your credit report to make sure your account gets cleared.
While anyone can be targeted for identity fraud, it does help to keep your email free of spam to the extent possible and never give out personal information—including your birth date, social security number, passwords and account information—to anyone without being absolutely certain who they are. Your good name is one of your most valuable assets and it’s worth protecting, no matter what the cost.