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What to do when your identity is stolen

The process for rectifying an occurrence of identity theft can be very time consuming, frustrating and costly.  Furthermore, the perpetrator of the identity theft is unlikely to ever be caught.  Unfortunately, there is a very big return to risk calculation that a thief makes.  If they are ever caught, the consequences are much less than violent crime and the potential for illicit gain are much greater.  Consider that a violent criminal could mug or rob a person of their wallet or purse.  They may get $100 in cash and access to credit cards which will quickly be turned off and changed.  The robber is usually able to be visually identified by the victim or other witnesses.  If caught, this robber may get 10 years in prison.   However, an identity thief with access to the personal information of a victim can obtain credit for thousands of dollars in a victim’s name.  The victim may not even learn of the crime for a period of months, at which point the damage is done.  The thief is not seen by the victim and is very difficult to identify.  The first obstacle in catching a thief is legal jurisdiction.  A victim may live in Colorado, have their identity stolen by a person in New York and the fraudulent credit is used to purchase items or services in Florida.  Which legal authority will pursue this crime?  Furthermore, authorities have little time to spend chasing identity thieves that operate on a small scale.  Therefore, the chances of actually being caught by a thief are small.

The steps that a victim must take call for the immediate filing of a police report to detail the identity theft.  Most police departments are now more open to filing the report due to the increasing frequency of identity theft.  With the report filed, contact must be made to the three major credit reporting agencies:  Experian, Equifax and Transunion and notifying them of the identity theft and placing a fraud alert.  They will place a credit hold on the account of the victim so that no further credit can be obtained without specific approval.  Then the fraudulent charges must be addressed.  This becomes the time consuming and frustrating part.  The Federal Trade Commission also provides detailed information on the steps to take in order to remedy an occurrence of identity theft.   More information may be obtained at the Federal Trade Commission website at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0014-identity-theft

Everyone should obtain a yearly credit report to ensure that their identity is still secure.  A report is available free of charge by going to www.annualcreditreport.com.  Prevention is the best activity a person can employ to reduce the chances of identity theft.

  1. Don’t leave outgoing mail in an unsecured mailbox.  Particularly bills being paid with checks.
  2. Shred or properly dispose of unsolicited offers of credit and consider “opting out” of credit card solicitations.
  3. If a personal shredder is used, mix the shred with other refuse.  Don’t throw away the shred in the plastic bags that are provided.  This isolates the important information in one place and it may be able to be reconstructed.
  4. Protect your social security information.  Don’t carry your card in a wallet or purse.  Only give out your number if absolutely necessary.  Ask to provide other identifying information as a substitute.  The less places that your information is available, the better for identity protection.

Also, be alert for unusual credit activity to determine if you have been victimized.  Mail that does not arrive as expected for bills, etc.  Be aware of any denials of credit that are received when no credit was applied for.  If calls are received for payments of goods or services that were not ordered, it may be another indicator that the identity may have been used by a thief.

Identity protection requires constant vigilance.  By taking appropriate steps to guard personal information and being vigilant for any unusual activities, the risk of identity theft can be reduced and the damages that result if it does occur can be mitigated by swift action on the part of the conscientious consumer.

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