What to Do If Your Identity Has Been Stolen?
Identity theft, also known as identity fraud, happens when someone maliciously obtains and uses another person’s personal information. Information such as a person’s Social Security number, passport number, credit card, etc. which are then later used to impersonate the victim for monetary gain.
Now how do you deal with identity theft? Prevention is still better than cure and on the subject of ID theft, it’s best to prevent it with knowledge. In this guide, we’ll tell you how identity thieves get a hold of your information and how these pieces of information can be used to take advantage of you. When you know how these thefts happen, you can take the necessary precautions to protect yourself.
However, there are still instances when your identity could be stolen despite being careful. What do you do if you suspect you’re a victim of identity theft? The first thing you should do is report your suspicions to the relevant authorities — your bank, your insurance company, etc. After this, you should strengthen your security measures, which we’ll outline later in this article.
So, firstly, how does identity theft even happen?
The bad news is that identity theft is on the rise. There were 3.8 million fraud incidents reported in the year to March 2019, according to Cifas, a fraud prevention group.
In its annual Fraudscape report, Cifas reported that there was an 8% rise of cases recorded in the National Fraud Database in 2018 than in 2017. The most vulnerable segment was people under 21, and there was an overall 41% increase in plastic card fraud compared to 2017.
It’s not just young people who’re being targeted more frequently by identity thieves. The report also stated that more than 33,000 people over 60 were victims of identity fraud in 2018.
This claim is supported by a separate report from the security group Symantec. In their 2019 Internet Security Threat Report, they claimed that cybercriminals are diversifying their targets and using stealthier methods to commit identity theft and fraud.
According to the same report, account takeovers or instances when hackers can log in to another person’s account, are also up by 79%. For account takeovers, both individual and enterprise accounts are at risk.
Criminals are getting more and more resourceful. Did you know that they can find additional pieces of information about you using just by combining one or two pieces of data?
Your identity can be stolen with just your name and address
Identity thieves are always on the lookout for pieces of your information that can lead to other information. And when they get a lot of data about you, that’s when they can build a fake identity — a fake identity of you.
There are instances when these thieves can get started with only your name and address. They can do it using a number of ways. One of them is using a database to find more information about you. Another way is to redirect your mail to get your credit card statements or other personal letters.
A more popular way is to use a phishing attack to trick you into giving them the information they need. They usually do this by sending fake offers to your mailing address, which require you to reply with your personal data.
More commonly, identities are stolen using the last four digits of your Social Security number
In the US, the Social Security number (SSN) is not randomised. Do you know that hackers can get your full social security number using only the last four digits?
That’s because before 2011, the system creating the first five digits of the SSN was based on your region and group number during registration. So, if the thief finds out where you live, it won’t be impossible for them to try different combinations to get your group number.
In fact, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University discovered that predicting the first five numbers is relatively easy. Using simple internet research, researchers have identified the full Social Security number of 44% of deceased people born between 1988 and 2003 in just one attempt.
Your identity can be stolen with just your email address!
Your email is like the command center of your online life. If a thief gets control of your email, all your accounts connected to it are automatically compromised. What’s worse is that once they get a hold of your email address, they can also reset the passwords for your accounts connected to it. This may include your online bank account or social media pages.
What if they only have your email address but not your password? Well, they can still use it for phishing. As previously mentioned, phishing is the act of tricking you into giving information that can later be used for hacking and fraudulent activities.
Do you receive emails telling you that you won a contest even if you don’t remember entering? Maybe don’t open that email just yet... Hackers will send legitimate-looking emails asking for your information. Take extra precaution in answering unsolicited emails, or better yet, don’t answer them at all.
Can a driver's license number be used for identity theft?
The answer is yes. Your license number can lead the thieves to other information needed to build a fake identity. If you’re the unlucky victim of a data breach or if your physical license goes missing, it’s quite possible that this can be used to steal your identity.
Since your license number is connected to your vehicle registration, the thief can then get information about your insurance policies, place of employment, and more.
Can a stolen laptop or phone be used for identity theft?
Do you usually store personal information on your laptop or phone? Are you the type of person who never logs out of their online accounts? If you answered yes, we have some bad news for you. A study by tech company Kensington revealed that a laptop is stolen every 53 seconds. In the US, phone theft is also on the rise.
Since your laptop is your portable link to the digital world, people who want access to your personal details, such as driver’s license numbers, credit cards, social security numbers, and others, can easily get all in one go by stealing your laptop or phone.
If your laptop or phone gets stolen, prepare for the possibility of having your identity stolen too. One way to remedy this is to remotely wipe your computer or phone data. After that, be sure to change the passwords of all compromised accounts.
Different types of identity theft
Once the criminal has enough information to create a fake identity, what can they do with the stolen data? Here are the most common types of identity theft:
Existing account identity theft. This is the most common type of theft but also the easiest to catch. When a criminal gains access to any of your accounts, they can charge your credit card, file claims against your insurance policy, and more. Often, criminals make small debit charges that are difficult to notice so be sure to check your accounts regularly.
New account identity theft. They can create a new account under your name by getting your details from various sources on the internet. This may be tough to spot so make sure to check your credit report regularly using credit monitoring services.
Tax identity theft. This happens when criminals get hold of your tax return. If this happens, file a fraud claim as soon as possible.
Medical identity theft. When an identity thief uses your health insurance to get medical care in your name, that’s called medical theft. And you can only find out if bogus medical bills start piling up on your doorstep. Be sure to alert both authorities and your medical practitioner because this will also mess up your medical records and patient information.
Employment identity theft. A scammer or criminal who can’t get a job may use your identity, including your social security number, to gain employment. If this goes on, it will affect your social security benefits as the thief can claim these in your name.
Child identity theft. Thieves can sometimes use a child’s social security number and other personal details to open new accounts, apply for government benefits, take out loans, and more. Some parents get very surprised when they get a notice from the tax bureau that their child owes taxes, or they’re declined government benefits. What you can do is request a manual check on your child’s credit file.
Senior identity theft. Seniors are more vulnerable to identity theft scams because they’re more trusting in most cases and they do not monitor their accounts as regularly. Fraudsters scamming on seniors often get hold of social benefits in their name.
Synthetic identity theft. This is the most recent type of identity theft in which the criminal takes bits of information from many victims and combines it together. The new identity isn’t any specific person, but all the victims are real and they can still be affected in one way or another.
Social Security identity theft. Thieves working with someone else's Social Security number can avoid paying any taxes by manipulating or withholding taxes. They can also pretend to work as an independent contractor and not pay any withholding taxes at all. You may foot the bill for those unpaid withholding taxes to you since the compensation was paid to someone with your social security number.
Estate identity theft. It happens when a dead person’s identity gets stolen so that a thief can drain the deceased person’s bank accounts, get benefits, or more. You can avoid this by notifying credit bureaus and financial institutions in case of a relative’s death.
Criminal identity theft. This is when a criminal gives your information to a police officer. They may even have paperwork or identity cards in your name, to back up this fake identity. This can greatly affect you if ever you need to go through a background check.
If my identity is stolen, what am I liable for?
You do have limited liability when it comes to fraudulent debts.
In most US states, you’re not responsible for any debts or accounts opened under your name without your permission. However, you still have to pay for the use of your card which can amount up to $50.
On the other hand, the thief can be sued for fraud. And in most cases, other parties who are legally responsible are also liable. Banks, credit institutions, even stores can be sued for negligence under some state laws.
For example, if an online store acted negligently in allowing a purchase without the necessary verification process, that store may be sued for negligence.
How to check if your identity has been stolen
Here are several signs that may serve as a warning that someone is using your identity:
- You notice withdrawals from your bank that you didn’t make yourself.
- Payments you can’t explain show up in your billing statement.
- Your billing statements or other mails go missing.
- Merchants refuse your checks.
- Debt collectors call you about unexplained debts.
- Medical providers bill you for services you do not remember using.
- Your health plan tells you that you’ve reached your benefits limit even if you haven’t used it.
- Your medical records are showing conditions you don’t have.
- The tax bureau notifies you that more than one tax return was filed in your name.
- The tax bureau notifies you that you have an income for another employer.
- And the most obvious one… You’re given notice by your company or bank that your information was breached.
If you experience any of the above, you can double-check with the relevant consumer reporting agencies to place “fraud alerts” in your file under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
The Fair Credit Reporting Act is federal legislation meant to promote fair, accurate, and private background checks and other consumer reports . Under this legislation, you also have the right to free copies of the information in your file. You also have the right to obtain documents related to the fraudulent transactions made or accounts opened using your personal information.
What to do after your identity has been stolen
If you have confirmed that your identity has been compromised, you must first report this to the affected companies or agencies (banks, medical companies, etc.) then take steps to prevent this from happening in the future.
How to report your stolen identity
In the event your identity has been stolen, here is a step-by-step guide:
1. Contact the affected agencies. As stated above, the first thing you have to do is notify the relevant creditors, banks, and government agencies. This may also include telephone or utility agencies in case the fraudster was using your name to open new accounts.
2. Set up a fraud alert and freeze your credit. You should also ask the relevant agencies to set up a fraud alert or credit freeze. There can be no time limit to the freeze and it will remain until you decide to lift it. This is to prevent the identity thief from further using your credit card or other personal assets that were compromised.
3. File a report. Make sure you file an official report to the different credit reporting agencies.
4. File for dispute. Some companies do not automatically overturn charges made to your account. You need to file a dispute before their team can investigate, which is a requirement to cancel the charges or return your money.
5. Assess the damage. As mentioned, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you are entitled to access the information in your file and obtain documents relating to fraudulent transactions. You can also use this information to decide whether you’ll be needing legal help or not.
How to file an identity theft report
An identity theft report, or identity theft affidavit, is an individual's official statement about the crime. You can get this form from the FTC's IdentityTheft.gov website.
You can easily download this form and fill it out with the important details. Once you’re done, you must call your bank or affected business to enquire how they process complaints. Most businesses accept this affidavit instead of a police report that will support your claim.
You don’t have to pay anything to report identity theft. You can simply file it online and print out the affidavit with the other necessary documents.
Reporting identity theft to Social Security
If someone has used your Social Security number, the Social Security agency itself can’t resolve the problem. But, you can report the theft to IdentityTheft.gov, managed by the FTC, and get a recovery plan.
You may also complain online using the Internet Crime Complaint Center which gives victims a convenient and easy-to-use reporting tool that sends complaints to law enforcement or regulatory agencies.
Reporting identity theft to the police
After you’ve confirmed identity theft, your initial reaction may be to go to the police station. However, your local police may not be able to resolve this right away, especially if the crime involves the internet.
You may go to the police if the following situation applies to you:
- Your creditor requires you to file a police report
- You have specific information that can help with the investigation or you can identify the person who stole your identity
- You are a victim of criminal identity theft and your name was used during an encounter with the police
Do you need a lawyer if your identity has been stolen?
There are things you would be able to handle on your own such as calling your banks and filing reports. However, identity theft can seep into many areas of our lives and other types of identity theft may be more difficult to resolve than others. This is when a lawyer can be useful.
Identity theft victims who experience massive losses or character defamation should consult lawyers on how to deal with their situation. They can give you legal advice on how you can restore your reputation or sue companies or entities involved in the theft.
Another instance when a lawyer can help is when you need to follow up with agencies or companies to recover your losses. When complaining to a customer service representative isn’t working anymore, a letter to their legal department from your attorney may do wonders. They can also cite the relevant laws or bring valuable information to the table when resolving the issue.
How to avoid getting your identity stolen in the future
Whether or not you’ve been a victim of identity theft, you still have to be constantly vigilant about online security. Bear in mind these tips to protect yourself online:
- Use long, complicated passwords. The longer the password, the better. Make sure to also use a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as symbols.
- Mix up your passwords. Don’t use the same password for all your accounts. If identity thieves can get into one account, that means they can get into all of them.
- Stay away from shady websites and links. You suddenly get an advertisement asking you to join a promo, but you’ve never heard of the company holding the contest…? Think twice before you click on any links.
- Give out personal information only to trusted establishments or agencies. If you don’t trust the website or establishment asking for your personal details, follow your gut and withhold your information.
- Check bank statements and credit reports regularly. Make it a habit to check your bank statements not on a monthly, but weekly basis. The same goes for your credit reports. Remember that these criminals try to debit small amounts first before making big purchases.
- Establish fraud alerts. If you suspect that your identity has been stolen, establish fraud alerts ASAP. As mentioned previously, you may also get a copy of the relevant reports, as stated by the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
- Protect documents with personal information. Certificates, registration forms, and other receipts that contain your personal information should be stored in a safe place. Don’t leave them lying around your home or office where they can be seen by anybody.
- Don’t post personal information online. It may be tempting to share a lot about yourself on social media but do hold the reins. Cybercriminals can piece together important information about you by just visiting your social media accounts.
Recovering from identity theft, what are the options?
- Close new accounts opened in your name. Cut off the thief’s access. Ask the agencies to notify you if ever the thief tries to access them.
- Remove bogus charges from your accounts and correct your credit report. After you’ve contacted the credit bureaus, you can request for the fraudulent information to be removed. You can use a sample request template by the FTC and submit it along with your identity theft report and other information to prove your claim.
- Consider adding an extended fraud alert or credit freeze. If you still don’t feel safe about your accounts, consider extending your credit freeze but only if you can afford it.
- Stop debt collectors from trying to collect debts you don't owe. If you’ve filed the report and dispute, this shouldn’t be a problem. However, if the debt collectors are insisting you should still pay for the expenses, consider hiring a lawyer to help you fix this problem.
- Replace government-issued IDs. Replace compromised IDs and cards so that the government agency connected to them gets flagged if the thief continues using the old one.
- Replace passwords. For all compromised accounts, replace your passwords ASAP and implement two-factor authentication, if possible.
- Clear your name of criminal charges. If you were a victim of criminal identity theft, then you must clear your name by submitting the police report and identity theft report to local authorities.
- Remain vigilant. Your experience may teach you to be more vigilant in the future but you can never be too careful. Free your mind of worries by using a security product that protects you and your identity like Clario.
What to do if your identity has been stolen: FAQs
We hope that after reading our guide, you feel more empowered in terms of fighting against identity theft. Here’s a rundown of what we learned:
Q: How does identity theft happen?
A: Identity can be stolen by piecing together bits of information about you, starting with just your name and address. Hackers can also get more information about you by using your email address, the last four digits of your Social Security number, your driver’s license plate, and a stolen mobile phone or laptop.
Q: What are the different types of identity theft?
A: There are several types of identity theft. The most common ones are existing account identity theft, new account identity theft, tax identity theft, medical identity theft, employment identity theft, child identity theft, senior identity theft, synthetic identity theft, Social Security identity theft, estate identity theft, criminal identity theft.
Q: What am I liable for if my identity has been stolen?
A: Some banks may still ask you to pay a $50 charge for the use of your credit card in the event that card has been used or that a new credit card has been set up in your name.
Q: How do I know if my identity has been stolen?
A: There are several ways to find out if your identity has been used by another person. The most common signs are: payments you can’t explain are showing up in your billing statement you can't explain; your billing statements go missing; debt collectors are calling you about purchases you haven't made; medical provider bill you for services you don't remember using, the tax bureau notifies you that more than one tax return was filed under your name; and you are given a notice by your company or bank that your information was breached.
Q: What do you need to do if your identity has been stolen?
A: First, you should contact your creditors, banks, and government agencies. The next step is to establish a fraud alert and freeze your credit card. You should also file an official report to the credit reporting bureaus. After that, file for dispute to purchases made in your name. Finally, assess the damage and consider hiring a lawyer to sue for damages, if needed.
Q: How do you avoid getting your identity stolen?
A: There are several ways to protect your identity: use long and complicated passwords; stay away from suspicious websites; don't give out your personal information; establish fraud alerts; don't post private information online; and remain vigilant by using up-to-date privacy protection software.
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