No matter how tightly you lock-down your personal information, there is no way to completely prevent identity theft. Unfortunately, your information is out there already. You bank has it. Your doctor’s office has it. Your gym has it. That guy you dated for two weeks during college has it. Even the people you graduated high school with have it. In fact, they probably have a lot more information than you think – they know when you were born, your first grade teacher, the name of your first pet, your childhood friend, and all of those other supposedly secret security questions websites ask us every day.
So even if you never give out your private information again, there’s more than enough of it out there to get stolen.
So what happens if you do become a victim?
Should you just scream and shout and hope someone’s paying attention? That probably won’t work too well, unless you happen to live next door to both your bank and the police station.
Should you hop in your car and track the culprit down yourself like in Identity Thief? Also, not a great plan. Most identity thieves won’t be as easy to find or as funny as Melissa McCarthy. And they could be a lot more dangerous.
If you think you’re a victim of identity theft (check out some warning signs), there are 5 steps you need take:
1. Notify the bank, credit card company, hospital, business, etc. involved immediately
The sooner you let the company involved know you suspect identity theft, the quicker they can investigate it and stop future fraud from occurring. In the case of debit or credit card theft, this is especially important, because you need to cancel your card right away, before the thief spends more of your money.
2. File a police report
The odds are against the police actually catching the identity thief, but don’t let that dissuade you from contacting them. There’s always a chance! And even if they can’t catch him, filing a police report is a critical step on proving that you are innocent in all of this.
So if the bank questions whether or not you actually made the charges, or you insurance company says you owe them several thousand dollars, or a police officer pulls you over and says there’s a warrant out for your arrest – it’s the police report that’s going to save you butt!
3. Contact the credit bureaus
Place fraud alerts on your credit file as soon as you suspect identity theft. This will tell any business or lender to contact you before issuing new credit. It won’t stop someone from using your existing accounts (that’s what step 1 was for), but it can prevent them from opening new accounts and racking up credit you didn’t even know you had. Fraud alerts are simple to set. You can call a credit bureau or set them up online. And once you set them with one bureau, they’re in place for all three bureaus.
By the way – You don’t have to wait until you’ve been a victim to set fraud alerts. You can set them right now, if you want. In fact, you probably should. They’re a great prevention method.
4. Review your credit reports
Your information is out there, and it’s already been used. Maybe it was only used this one time, but don’t take the chance. Review your credit reports and look for anything else suspicious. And then keep reviewing them regularly.
5. Document everything
Write down everything you’ve discovered, every person you’ve talked to, every bank you’ve written to, the name of the police officer you handed your report to. Everything. Note the time and date of every conversation you’ve had and every action you took. The more information you compile, the easier it will be to defend yourself or push for a refund if necessary. And the easier it will be to take action in the future if you’re ever a victim again.
If you think you’re a victim of identity theft, it’s important to contact the appropriate parties as soon as possible. The faster the investigation gets under way, the less chance there is of further damage being done to your identity…and the easier it will be to fix things. So save all the screaming or dumb heroics for the movies.
If you’re thinking this seems like a lot of headache, you may also want to consider an identity theft protection company. Most of them offer some type of guarantee and remediation services. The better ones can help you with most of these steps and even do many of them for you.