The initial signs of identity theft may be small: a bill for services you didn't pay for or credit card charges you didn't make. You may also discover problems by checking your credit report every year. Checking your online accounts and social media presence every so often can protect your online identity as well.
Stay Alert for Trouble
The simplest way to spot identity theft is to read your bills and statements from your credit-cards, your health insurer, the IRS, or any letters from debt collection agencies, watching for unusual items:
- You see credit card charges or bills for items you didn't buy.
- Your health insurer reports treatments you haven't received, or writes about medical conditions you don't have.
- The IRS says it has already received your return, or that you have income from an employer you've never heard of.
Even if the charges are small enough to be trivial, don't ignore them. The thief may be testing to see whether you react. If not, he'll start spending on bigger items.
If you stop getting a regular bill in the mail, that could also be a warning sign. The thief may have changed your address to her own so that you won't see the bill and spot problems.
Check Your Credit Report
You have the legal right to one free credit report a year from each of the major credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and Transunion. The simplest way to make the request is through the Annual Credit Report website. Unlike some credit-report services that charge you fees, Annual Credit Report is free.
Reviewing your report is useful for spotting identity-theft attempts that haven't yielded results. For example, you may see new accounts you haven't opened, credit inquiries from creditors you don't do business with or a new address that is not your home. All these can be warning signs.
Read More: How to Get a Credit Report
Your Online Identity
Hacking your email or your Facebook account has all kinds of potential uses. Many people use Facebook or email to log into a variety of websites, for instance. Checking for online identity theft is a smart precaution.
The exact method varies with the service. On Facebook, for example, you can click Settings, then Security, then Where You're Logged In. If you see addresses that don't make sense, hit End Activity to break off the session, then change your password. Take similar precautions on other sites.
What Are the Next Steps?
If you really suspect you're an identity-theft victim, you can ask for an immediate fraud alert, or for a credit freeze. Fraud alerts require that businesses check with you before pulling your credit report which makes it harder for thieves to open new accounts. You can call any one of the major credit bureaus to set up the alert for free. A credit freeze blocks access to your credit report until you lift it. Call each of the three major bureaus, and pay a small fee. The Federal Trade Commission has information online about how to use either tool, and guidance for how to recover a stolen identity.
The easiest way to spot identity theft is to read your bills from credit cards, insurance companies, the IRS and debt collection agencies, watching for unusual items. Reviewing your credit report can also yield clues that someone is using your identity.
Fraser Sherman has written about bankruptcy law, real estate law, tax law, business law and several other categories. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is frasersherman.com