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Identity Theft Protection and Help

Identity Theft Protection and Help

Identity theft can be really scary. Like, just thinking that someone could pretend to be you and open credit cards or take out loans in your name is super freaky. But don’t worry – there’s a lot you can do to protect yourself and also get help if you do become a victim. This article will give you some tips and info so you can avoid identity theft or deal with it if it happens.

What Exactly is Identity Theft?

Identity theft is when someone steals your personal information and uses it to commit fraud, like opening credit cards or getting medical services in your name. The most common types of identity theft are:

  • Credit card fraud – This is when someone gets a hold of your credit card number and makes unauthorized charges. They could steal the physical card from your wallet or purse, skim your card at a store or ATM, or hack the credit card company’s database to get card numbers.
  • Bank account access – Identity thieves will use your name, account numbers, and other info to withdraw money from your bank accounts. They could open a new account in your name or add their name to your existing account.
  • Government document fraud – Criminals use your Social Security number, driver’s license number, passport number, or other government IDs to get benefits, medical services, or even a job in your name.
  • Phone or utilities fraud – Identity thieves open new phone, electric, gas, or water accounts using your name and SSN. Then they don’t pay the bills and it damages your credit.
  • Tax fraud – This is when someone files a fake tax return with your SSN to collect your refund. You go to file your return and the IRS says one has already been submitted.
  • Medical identity theft – Identity thieves use your insurance info to get medical services or send fake bills to your health insurance provider. This can damage your credit and medical records.

Warning Signs of Identity Theft

Here are some red flags that indicate your identity may have been stolen:

  • You see charges on your credit or debit card statements that you didn’t make
  • You stop receiving your regular bills and statements in the mail
  • Debt collectors call about debts you don’t recognize
  • You’re denied credit because your credit report shows accounts you didn’t open
  • The IRS sends you a letter saying more than one tax return was filed in your name
  • You get bills for medical services you didn’t use
  • Your health insurance company rejects your legitimate medical claim because benefits were already paid out
  • You apply for government benefits and are told you’re already receiving them

If you notice any of these signs, take action right away to limit the damage. The faster you act, the easier it will be to resolve the problem.

How to Prevent Identity Theft

While you can never completely prevent identity theft, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk:

Guard your personal information

Be very careful about sharing your SSN, account numbers, birthdate, and other sensitive info. Only give it out when absolutely necessary, like when applying for a loan.

Shred documents

Use a cross-cut shredder to destroy any papers containing personal information before throwing them out. This includes credit card offers, bank statements, etc.

Check your credit reports

You can get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus every 12 months. Review the reports closely to spot any suspicious activity.

Use strong passwords

Create unique, complex passwords for all your online accounts. Change passwords frequently. Consider using a password manager.

Beware of phishing scams

Don’t click links or download attachments from suspicious emails. Avoid entering sensitive info on sites you were sent to via email.

Only use secure WiFi

When using public WiFi, stick to major, reputable hotspot networks. Avoid doing any online banking or shopping on public WiFi.

Monitor your accounts

Frequently review your bank and credit card statements to look for any unauthorized charges. Set up text or email alerts on accounts when possible.

Limit use of debit cards

Debit cards don’t have the same fraud protections as credit cards. Use credit cards for purchases whenever possible and avoid using your debit card number online.

What to Do if You’re a Victim of Identity Theft

If you discover your identity has been stolen, here are the steps to take:

1. Place a fraud alert

Contact one of the three major credit bureaus to place an initial 90-day fraud alert on your credit file. This requires creditors to take extra steps to verify your identity when opening new accounts.

2. Order your credit reports

Get your free annual credit reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Review them closely for any accounts opened without your permission.

3. Report identity theft

File an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission at IdentityTheft.gov. This will allow you to include a fraud alert extension and get records related to the theft.

4. Contact creditors

Notify your bank, credit card companies, utilities, health insurance, etc. Close any unauthorized accounts and dispute fraudulent charges. Ask what else you need to do to protect existing accounts.

5. Change passwords

If you think your online account passwords have been compromised, change them immediately. Make the new ones strong and unique for each account.

6. Monitor your credit

Sign up for free credit monitoring to keep a close eye on your credit reports going forward. Extended fraud alerts can provide free monitoring for 7 years.

7. File a police report

File a report with your local police department. Get a copy of the report, as creditors will likely request it when disputing fraudulent accounts.

8. Report tax identity theft

If someone filed taxes using your SSN, complete IRS Form 14039. Mail it to the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit.

9. Consider an identity theft protection service

A good identity theft company can help monitor your credit, scan sketchy websites for your info, and guide you through the recovery process if your identity is stolen again.

Recovering from identity theft takes time and effort, but staying persistent and following these steps will help clear up the damage. Be extra vigilant going forward in protecting your personal information.

Free Resources to Help Identity Theft Victims

If you’ve been hit by identity theft, take advantage of these free resources that can help you fix the problem:

  • IdentityTheft.gov – This FTC site lets you report identity theft and get a personal recovery plan. It’s the first stop for victims.
  • AnnualCreditReport.com – Get your free credit reports from the major bureaus to identify accounts opened in your name.
  • OptOutPrescreen.com – Stop credit card offers that identity thieves could steal from your mailbox by opting out here.
  • IRS IP PIN program – If your SSN was misused for tax fraud, the IRS will issue you an IP PIN each year that must be entered on tax returns.
  • ChexSystems consumer assistance – Get help disputing fraudulent bank accounts opened in your name.
  • LexisNexis Fraud Prevention Solutions – Dispute fraudulent address changes reported to this consumer data provider.
  • FTC identity theft affidavit – Creditors often require this standard form from identity theft victims disputing fraudulent accounts.
  • AARP Fraud Watch Network – AARP’s fraud helpline, alert system and guides can assist older victims of identity theft.

Don’t let identity thieves wreck your finances and credit. Use all the tools available to protect yourself and get your identity back if it is stolen. It may take some time and effort, but you can recover and minimize the damage.

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