Identity theft can be a silent, stealthy attack. You might not even be aware that you’re a victim until well after it’s happened. You might check your credit report because your credit score has been inexplicably plummeting and you’ve been turned down for a loan, only to find an account on there that you didn’t open. Worse, it’s 120 days delinquent or it’s in collections.
Identity theft can also involve a thief accessing existing accounts in your name. But you’re not defenseless. Congress passed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act in 1998 to make identity theft a federal crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison, monetary fines, and surrender of any property that was illegally obtained. You have to report the theft to start the ball rolling, however, and to help the authorities press charges.
Notify the Federal Trade Commission and your local authorities if you're a victim of identity theft. Local law enforcement will open an investigation and press criminal charges when and if they prove your case.
Report to the Federal Trade Commission
Your first action should be to reach out to the Federal Trade Commission to report the theft and to complete an identity theft affidavit. Your creditors and credit reporting agencies will eventually want documentation that provides substantiation of your allegations, and most should accept the FTC affidavit as proof. The affidavit will also provide them with all they information they’ll need to help you get your situation straightened out.
Go to the FTC’s Identity Theft Affidavit webpage to report the incident or incidents and to access the form. Complete it according to the instructions, print it out, then sign it in front of a notary. This option is available only to help you defend against new accounts that have been opened in your name.
Contact Your Local Police Department
Contact your local police department for incidents that don’t involve new accounts, such as if someone has made charges to an existing credit or debit card in your name. You should also file a report with local authorities for newly opened fraudulent accounts after you’ve made a report to the FTC. If you live in a rural area, you might have to contact the county sheriff or the state police instead. Be sure to include every detail you can think of when you make a police report, even if it doesn’t seem important, and keep a copy of the report for your own records.
Make sure you have copies of your credit reports from all three major credit agencies. The police will need these to be able to help you. You won’t have to pay for the reports if you’re a victim of identity theft or if you’ve been refused credit because of something that was entered on one or more of them. It’s a good idea to attach the copies of your credit reports to your police report.
Keep in mind that only the authorities can technically “press charges” or charge someone with a crime, and they can’t do that until they’ve completed an investigation. Your police report starts that process. You’ll want to make yourself available to answer questions and to assist in the investigation in any way necessary.
Inform Other Agencies
Depending on the nature of the identity theft you’ve experienced, you might have to make other notifications as well. If you believe the thief used the mail in any way to commit the crime against you, contact the U.S. Postal Service, and get a copy of that report as well.
If you think the attack on you was cyber-related – meaning that it involved the use of the internet or electronic devices – file a report with the FBI or the U.S. Secret Service.
Other Precautions and Steps
You’ll want to take further steps even after you’ve filed all reports. Continue monitoring your credit reports to keep an eye out for any further illegal activity. You can always file additional police reports or FTC affidavits or update your existing ones.
You should also reach out to each of your creditors to keep them apprised of the situation, particularly those who were involved in the fraudulent incident or incidents. You might have to prove that you in no way benefited from the fraudulent transactions so you don’t have to pay for them, but your police report and FTC affidavit will go a long way toward taking care of that issue.
Ask for copies of all credit applications submitted in your name so you can provide them to the police. Some creditors might want you to report the fraudulent incident or incidents within two weeks of learning about them – although not necessarily within two weeks of the date when they occurred since you might not have been aware of them.
The credit reporting agencies should help you put a fraud alert on your credit reports when you contact them to get copies of the reports. If they don’t mention this, ask them to do so. And they should block the fraudulent accounts from appearing on your credit report within 30 days of notification or tell you in writing why they haven’t done that.
A Word of Warning
Always speak with a consumer law attorney before you give in to the temptation to pay off any fraudulent debts just to get rid of them. You’ll lose all your bargaining power to remove them from your credit history if you do this. You’d effectively be admitting that you’re responsible for these debts, and any negative activity associated with them could haunt you for seven more years after you make a payment.