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What to Do if You Are a Victim of Identity Theft and Credit Card Fraud

What is Identity Theft and Credit Card Fraud?

Identity theft occurs when someone steals your personal information to acquire new bank or credit card accounts, establish phone service or even get a mortgage in the name of the victim.

Credit card fraud happens when someone uses your established credit card accounts without authorization. Typically, someone will use your card to make unauthorized purchases or to take out cash advances.

What should I do if I'm the victim of Credit Card Fraud?

As soon as you become aware that there are unauthorized charges on your credit card account, you should contact the fraud department of the credit card company through their toll-free number on the back of the card.

Credit card fraud disputes are handled by the card issuer and consumers are generally not liable for unauthorized transactions.

What do I do if I suspect I've been the victim of Identity Theft?

Act immediately, especially because identity theft can occur as soon as, or years after, your personal information is obtained. If you believe the theft involves your current credit card accounts, call each company or go online to examine your charges one by one. If you discover charges you didn't make, put them in dispute and have the company cancel your card and send a new one to your current address.

Next, add (or change) security passwords connected to your accounts. And contact the issuer's fraud department immediately.

You may want to follow up any phone conversations with a letter or keep a written record of your correspondence with the company for your files. Then contact the credit bureaus and follow the same procedures: follow up with letters and keep copies for your records.

If you suspect that someone else has been opening accounts in your name, call one of the credit bureaus and put a "fraud alert" on your credit report. While not foolproof, this puts a flag on your account and lets any potential creditor know that there may be a problem, while preventing further criminal activity. If credit is sought, the lender must take steps to verify the applicant's identity, often by calling the applicant directly. The alert will stay in place for 90 days.

Quickly get copies of all three of your credit reports. Go through all the line items on the report, look for accounts that are not yours and contact the bureaus with that information by phone and in writing.

When you write the credit bureaus, also ask them to remove from your record any inquiries resulting from the fraud. (Inquiries, or checks by creditors prior to issuing credit, can lower your credit score, so even if the thief hasn't taken a dime, he or she could still damage your credit.

If you suspect the thief has access to your checkbook, debit card or banking information, contact that institution (by phone and in writing). You may need to change account numbers and cancel your debit card.

You also need to contact the card issuers and lenders for the bogus accounts. Have them closed, and make it clear that you never opened them and that this is a case of identity fraud. Follow up in writing and include a copy of the police report.

Here are the phone numbers and Web sites of the three major credit bureaus:

Equifax (equifax.com): (888) 766-0008

ExperianSM (experian.com): (888) 397-3742

TransUnion® (transunion.com): (800) 680-7289

Do I really need to file a police report?

Yes. Your local police department may or may not work the case. Local policies differ when it comes to pursuing an identity theft case, but filing an official complaint with the police, which you will typically sign "under penalty of perjury," gives your case additional credence. Not only does it add to the official record of the theft (with a timeline and a succinct summary of the crime), but it also demonstrates that there was an actual crime and that you are taking official steps to clear up the problem.

With a police report, you can also write the credit bureaus and request that the fraud alert be extended for seven years.

If your local law enforcement doesn't take police reports on identity theft (some don't), you can make an official record of your ID theft by filing a fraud affidavit with the Federal Trade Commission. (Find the form at its "Tools for Victims" site, listed at the end of this page).

Once I notify everyone, is that it?

Unfortunately, no. Fraud alerts aren't foolproof. You need to regularly monitor your bills and your credit reports. And you may have to stay in touch with credit bureaus and card issuers to ensure that they permanently remove the fraudulent items from your accounts and your records.

You may also want to take additional steps, like placing a "freeze" on your credit history. Unlike a fraud alert, freezing your credit means that credit bureaus are not allowed to release your credit report without your consent. Only you can lift the freeze by providing a PIN number and other information to verify your identity. Each of the three credit bureaus will now allow identity theft victims to enact a freeze on their credit histories. Typically the cost for this service is $10, but the fee is waived if you are a victim of identity theft and submit a valid police report.

For information and updates on credit freezes, visit the Consumers Union's Financial Privacy Now site at defendyourdollars.org/document/guide-to-security-freeze-protection.

Are there organizations that can help me sort through this?

Yes, there are a number of consumer groups that are helping people work through identity theft issues. Here are a few that you might find helpful:

  • The Identity Theft Resource Center (IDTheftCenter.org): (858) 693-7935.
    This nonprofit is dedicated to the understanding and prevention of identity theft.
  • The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PrivacyRights.org):(619) 298-3396.
    This organization has some great information on effective steps to take.
  • The Federal Trade Commission: The FTC has complaint forms, affidavits and sample letters you can use to notify creditors and credit bureaus. Check out "Tools for Victims" at ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/tools.html.
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