Following the steps below can help you contain the damage.
- Report it. Contact all of the financial institutions you hold accounts with to report that your identity has been stolen. Get in touch with your financial advisor, call your credit card company to freeze or cancel your account, and contact any banks you hold accounts with so that they can set up alerts or restrictions.
- Change your passwords. If you’re not sure how your identity was stolen, a weak or guessable password could well be culprit. Change the passwords and security questions for all of your accounts—e-mail, social media, banking, and so on. Ensure that your passwords for sites like Facebook, which have weaker security controls, are different than those for your financial and e-mail accounts. And check that the answers to your security questions are strong as well (i.e., not something that could be easily found out or guessed about you).
- Place a fraud alert on your credit reports. Setting up an alert with one of the three credit reporting agencies (TransUnion, Equifax, or Experian) can help prevent an identity thief from opening accounts in your name. To learn more, visit the FTC’s identity theft website.
- Request a copy of your credit report from the three credit reporting companies. Each of the companies’ reports is slightly different, so order one from each company to check for mistakes or signs of fraud. Be sure to ask that only the last four digits of your social security number appear on the reports.
- Close any accounts that may have been affected. It’s much safer to close an account and open a new one than to wait and see if an identity thief has accessed it.
- Alert the authorities. File a complaint with the FTC at www.ftc.gov/complaint or by calling 877.438.4338. You can then take the FTC complaint form to your local police to file a report.
Ways to keep your identity safe
Of course, the best way to avoid the emotional and financial pain of identity theft is to avoid having your identity stolen in the first place. To stay safe, follow these guidelines:
- Use a credit card for online purchases. Although using a credit card doesn’t guarantee that your identity won’t be stolen, you can dispute any fraudulent charges made to your account. (This usually isn’t possible with debit cards.)
- Only make purchases from secure websites (i.e., those with addresses that begin with “https”).
- Keep tabs on your social security card. Never carry your card around or keep it in your wallet. If you ever lose it, you’ll be an easy target for identity thieves.
- When in doubt, shred it. Be sure to shred all documents containing sensitive information. If you aren’t sure if a document is sensitive or not, just shred it!
- Monitor your credit reports. You’re entitled to three free credit reports per year, one from each of the credit reporting companies. Be sure to monitor your reports for any suspicious activity, no matter how small.
- Never respond to e-mails, texts, or phone calls that ask for personal information. Identity thieves often pose as trusted businesses or financial institutions. To verify that a request for your personal information is legitimate, contact the company directly to follow up.
- Be wary of public wireless networks. Never use public Wi-Fi to access, send, or receive sensitive information in any format. Don’t use a public network to log into any account (such as e-mail or financial accounts) that contains sensitive or personal information.
- Keep your computer up to date. To keep hackers at bay, be sure that all of your computer programs are current.