It’s been like this from the start—wherever people shop, do business, or simply gather together, you’ll find thieves in the mix, ready to take advantage. And that’s truer today when it comes to life online as cybercriminals use the internet to steal financial or personal data for their personal gain—otherwise known as identity theft.
This is a criminal act and can affect your credit score in a negative way and cost money to fix. It can also affect employment opportunities since some employers conduct a credit check on top of drug testing and a criminal history check. Identity theft victims may even experience an impact to their mental health as they work to resolve their case.
This could include private details like your birth date, bank account information, Social Security number, home address, and more. With data like this, an individual can adopt your identity (or even create a fake identity using pieces of your personal profile) and apply for loans, credit cards, debit cards, and more.
You don’t have to be kept in the dark, though. The good news is that being able to recognize the signs of identity theft means you can act quickly to intervene and minimize any effects in case it happens to you. You can also protect yourself by using preventive measures and engaging in smart online behavior.
Steps to take if you think your identity has been stolen
There are several signs that your identity has been stolen, from a change in your credit score to receiving unfamiliar bills and debt collectors calling about unfamiliar new accounts. It may be an unusual charge on one of your cards, however small. Or you may use a credit monitoring service like ours and receive an alert of suspicious activity. However it comes to your attention, you can act fast to minimize what happens.
File a police report
Start by contacting law enforcement to file a report. Your local police department can issue a formal report, which you may need to get your bank or other financial institution to reverse fraudulent charges. An official report assures the bank that you have been affected by identity fraud and it’s not a scam.
Before going to the police, gather all the relevant information about what happened. This could include the dates and times of fraudulent activity and any account numbers affected. Bringing copies of your bank statements can be useful. Also, make note of any suspicious activity that could be related. For example, was your debit card recently lost or your email hacked? The police will want to know.
Notify the company where the fraud occurred
You should also notify any businesses linked to your identity theft case. Depending on the type of identity theft, this could include banks, credit card companies, medical offices, health insurers, e-commerce stores, and more. Similarly, a fraudster may assume your identity to gain access to health care services, such as medical checkups, prescription drugs, or pricey medical devices. For instance, if someone uses your health insurance to get prescription drugs from a pharmacy, make sure to alert the pharmacy and your insurer.
File a report with the Federal Trade Commission
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a government body that protects consumer interests. You can report identity theft via their portal, IdentityTheft.gov. They’ll then use the details you provide to create a free recovery plan you can use to address the effects of identity theft, like contacting the major credit bureaus or alerting the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) fraud department. You can report your case online or by calling 1-877-438-4338.
Outside of the U.S., our knowledge base article on identity theft offers suggestions for the specific steps you can take in specific countries, along with helpful links for local authorities that you can turn to for reporting and assistance.
Ask credit reporting agencies to issue a fraud alert
A common consequence of identity theft is a dip in the victim’s credit score. For example, a cybercriminal may take out new lines of credit in the victim’s name, accrue credit card debt, and then not pay the balance. For this reason, contacting the credit monitoring bureaus is one of the most important steps to take in identity theft cases.
There are three main agencies in the U.S.: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. You can get a free credit report from each agency every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport.com. Check the report and note all fraudulent activity or false information and flag it with the relevant bureau’s fraud department. You should also initiate a fraud alert with each agency.
A fraud alert requires any creditors to verify your identity before opening a new line of credit. This adds an extra layer of security. An initial fraud alert lasts for 90 days. Once this expires, you can prolong your protection via an extended fraud alert, which will remain valid for seven years. You can notify one of the big three bureaus to set it up. They are then required to notify the other two bureaus.
A credit freeze is another smart move, which you can do through each of the three major credit bureaus. You can either call them or start the process online. This prevents people from accessing your credit report. Lenders, creditors, retailers, landlords, and others may want to see your credit as proof of financial stability. For example, if someone tries to open a phone contract under your name, the retailer may check the credit report. If there is a credit freeze in place, they won’t be able to view it and won’t issue the contract. If you need to allow someone access to your credit report, you can temporarily lift the freeze. And depending on your plan, you can issue a credit freeze or an even more comprehensive security freeze right from the McAfee app.
Change passwords for your accounts
Identity theft is often linked with leaked or hacked passwords. Even if you aren’t sure whether your passwords have been compromised, it’s best to play it safe. Change passwords to any affected accounts. Make sure to use strong, unique passwords for each of your accounts with a mix of numbers, letters, and symbols. A password manager included with comprehensive online protection software can do the work for you by creating and securely storing them for you. Further, if there’s a chance to activate two-factor authentication on your accounts go ahead and use it as it makes accessing accounts with a stolen password more difficult.
Is it possible to prevent identity theft?
Putting thorough protections in place can greatly reduce your risk of identity theft. As mentioned above, our McAfee+ plans offer a broad set of features that can help protect your identity. You monitor your credit, monitor your identity, and even help you restore your credit with identity theft & restoration services that cover up to $1 million in losses due to identity theft and connect you with recovery pros who can help you clean up your credit.
Additionally, you can grab a copy of our free Identity Protection Guide that covers the topic in detail—it’s part of our McAfee Safety Series, dedicated to ways you can protect yourself for a safer, more enjoyable life online.
If identity theft happens to you …
Realizing that you’ve become a victim carries plenty of emotion with it, which is understandable—the thief has stolen a part of you to get at your money, information, or even reputation. Once that initial rush of anger and surprise has passed, it’s time to get clinical and get busy. Right away.
Think like a detective who is building—and closing—a case. That’s exactly what you’re doing. Follow the steps, document each one, and build up your case file as you need. Staying cool, organized, and ready with an answer for any questions you’ll face in the process of restoring your identity will help you see things through.