You may not even know something is amiss until you apply for a car or mortgage loan and your lender says there’s a problem with your credit history or you look at your monthly credit card statement and see an unusual charge to a merchant you don’t recognize. Both of these situations indicate that you may be a victim of identity theft, one of the fastest-growing forms of crime in the United States.
Smart thieves may have opened credit cards in your name, using your personal information, and never paid the balances. (The bills could have been sent to a fictitious address, so you would never even have known the cards existed.) Unfortunately, the thieves’ bad credit score is now your bad credit score.
In the case of credit card charges, fraudsters who’ve gotten hold of your card number often run up small charges—as little as 99 cents—to see if your card works and whether you’ll notice the fee. If you don’t, they know they’re in business. Before long, you may see on your bill a huge charge for a TV or new sofa you didn’t buy.
Other signs of ID theft:
If an identity thief has already hit you, there are steps to recovering your good name and credit. However, fixing the damage may become your new part-time job for a few months. Here’s your plan of attack:
1. File fraud alerts with all three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian). This can help prevent thieves from opening additional accounts in your name. At Equifax, you can file an alert online, by phone, or by mail. Generally, within 24 hours of placing an online alert request, Equifax will send your alert request to the other two nationwide consumer reporting agencies. The three consumer reporting agencies work together so that when you request an alert through one of the agencies, your alert request is sent to the other two agencies automatically.
2. Consider a credit monitoring service. Products such as the one offered by Equifax help you keep closer tabs on your credit report on an ongoing basis, and they alert you to certain changes in your credit history.
3. Close the fraudulent accounts. You’ll need to contact each of the involved companies, provide proof of your identity (your actual one, this time), and sign fraud dispute forms.
4. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This can help law enforcement officials track down thieves and prevent future crimes. Use the FTC’s online complaint form, call their toll-free hotline 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338), or write to them at Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580.
5. File a police report. Some jurisdictions require you to file in person; others may let you do so by phone or online. It’s helpful to have a copy of your FTC complaint form with you when you file. You should also make copies of your police report in case your credit card company or other merchants request it.
6. Monitor your credit card statements regularly. Keep a close eye out for future ID theft problems, and always carefully review charges on your monthly credit card statements. If you find any that aren’t yours, contact your credit card issuer right away.
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