Consumer Law

Identity Theft Action Items

Online criminals use a wide variety of tricks to try to steal people's Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, usernames, passwords and other personal information. These techniques include hacking into websites where data is stored, "sniffing" for unencrypted information, covertly installing spyware, and sending "phishing" or other fraudulent emails, such as the well-known Nigerian scams.

Identity theft can damage your credit rating, your ability to borrow money or your ability to rent a home. In some cases, thieves commit crimes using your identity. By using these legal protections, you can fight back.

You should check your credit card and bank statements carefully for unauthorized charges. However, if an identity thief applied for new credit cards in your name, you may not find out about it until you start receiving letters and phone calls from creditors. Also, be sure to shred statements and other documents with personal information before discarding them.

You can take the following steps to protect yourself if your identity has in fact been stolen.

1. Place a fraud alert on your reports. To do this, contact any one of the three major credit agencies. The agency will contact the other two on your behalf.

2. Get a free credit report. Once you've placed a fraud alert, you're entitled to one free credit report from each agency. Examine the reports and look for any incorrect information, such as credit cards or loans that an identity thief had taken out in your name.

If you find anything wrong, you will need to take specific steps to correct the information. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., defines what actions you must take and how the credit agencies must respond. You must file an Identity Theft Report and a letter to the agency describing exactly which items on your report are fraudulent. Contact your local police department to generate an Identity Theft Report.

3. Close any accounts you think have been tampered with. You must communicate with your bank or credit card company in writing, including copies (don't send originals) of any supporting documents. If the thief has made charges to your account or has opened a new account, you'll need to fill out the appropriate forms.

For fraudulent charges, ask for the bank's fraud dispute forms. If they don't have such forms, just write a letter explaining why you think the charge is fraudulent.

If the person opened a new account in your name, you should file an Identity Theft Report report with your local police department and provide that to the bank. If you don't want to make a police report you can use the FTC's ID Theft Affadavit or the company's own forms.

4. Call 1-877-ID-THEFT to report the theft to the FTC. The FTC can forward your report to law enforcement and other government agencies, and investigate companies for violating consumer safety laws. Together with a police report, your report to the FTC will constitute an Identity Theft Report, which you can use to block fraudulent charges from your credit report, ensure the charges don't reappear and block creditors from trying to collect fraudulent debts from you.

5. File a report with the police. Identity theft is a crime in many states, punishable as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Filing a report will allow you to place a fraud alert on your credit report and, in states like California and New Jersey, place a freeze on it, which stops the credit agency from providing it to others.

6. Access applications made in your name. If you discover that someone has opened an account in your name, you can obtain a copy of the fraudulent application and a list of charges made on that account. In order to access this information, fill out a Fraudulent Account Information Request Form and the FTC's Identity Theft Affidavit and submit them along with a copy of the police report to the company with whom the account was opened.