The damage caused by a stolen identity could take years to fix. Here's what you can do to limit that damage as much as possible.
The bank can take your house. A pickpocket could grab your wallet. And if you don’t watch out, the witch who lives in that candy house down the street will steal your children away to turn them into gingerbread.
But at least there’s one thing no one can take from you: your identity … right?
Unfortunately not. Identity theft is very, very real. That’s why it’s important to know how to tell if your identity has been stolen and what to do when it has. Lucky for you, we spoke to the experts to get the answers to each of those questions!
Identity theft is only growing worse.
“Identity theft continues to grow due to a growing number of data breaches,” warned Justin Lavelle, Chief Communications Officer at BeenVerified.com.
“A data breach involves a company’s customers’ records being accessed in a fraudulent manner. These records often include the customer’s name, Social Security number, date of birth, home address, and driver’s license number. When large companies have a data breach, millions of customers are affected.
“Online shopping is another reason why identity theft is on the rise,” he continued. “Shoppers who are not knowledgeable of the risks of online shopping may use their credit card or bank information to make a purchase online and compromise their personal information.
“Online shopping presents one of the greatest opportunities for fraud. The long-term trend shows that it will continue to grow as consumers shop more online than in person and these criminals get more sophisticated in their knowledge of compromising online data.”
How do you know that your identity has been stolen?
Most of the time, when something is stolen from you, you’ll know it. If your car isn’t parked in front of your house where you left it, then it was either stolen, towed, or gained a life of its own and you’re living in a Stephen King book. But if your identity was stolen, It may not be quite so obvious
Lavelle offered the following common identity theft warning signs:
- “Bank withdrawals have been made from your account that you didn’t authorize.
- “You receive calls from debt collectors regarding debts that are not yours.
- “You stop receiving your mail.
- “Merchants will not accept your checks due to insufficient funds when you are certain you have the funds to cover your purchase.
- “Your credit report lists accounts that you didn’t open.
- “The IRS notifies you that you have two tax returns which were filed under your name.
- “You are notified that a company where you have an account has had a data breach.”
Lavelle also warned that it might be more subtle than that with this example:
“You discover a small ‘test charge’ on your credit card. A hacker will often place a small charge on your card as a test to see whether or not the charge will be accepted. Once it is accepted, they will charge a larger amount at a later time.
“You may start receiving phone calls or mail soliciting you to purchase a car, take out a personal loan, or other grand expenses. These could be due to someone spending a lot of your money and often, thus making you seem like a viable prospect for these solicitors.”
OK, so you’re pretty sure that your identity has been stolen in some form. What do you do now?
“Depending on the nature of the identity theft issue, first steps are fixing what’s broke,” explained identity theft expert and CEO of Safr.Me Robert Siciliano.
“That might mean ‘New account fraud’ and contacting a creditor that appears on a credit report or contacts you for nonpayment, and informing them that you weren’t the one that opened up the account, having those lines of credit shut down, and being made whole.”
Additionally, it can be worth reaching out to the credit agencies themselves.
“If your identity has been stolen you want to obtain a copy of your credit report directly from Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax,” advised nationally recognized credit expert Jeanne Kelly.
“You can add a freeze on your credit report for free. You can file a police report and bring the credit reports and any other accounts that funds were taken out of or charged on.”
You should also reach out to the credit card companies directly, if appropriate. Steve Weisman, a lawyer, author, and identity theft expert who writes at Scamicide.com, suggested the following:
“If your credit card was used by identity thieves, you should report the crime to your credit card issuer, have the phony charges removed, have the account closed and get a new credit card.
“If your name or credit was used to make fraudulent purchases, you should contact the company where the fraudulent purchase was made and inform them that the charge was fraudulent and they should remove the charge.
“You also should report the crime to the police. They are unlikely to catch the criminal, but it serves as a good record for later proving your innocence of any wrongdoing.
“You also should check your credit reports at each of the three major credit reporting agencies to have any faulty information removed from your credit report. The credit reporting agencies will remove fraudulent charges after they do an investigation.
“You should then freeze your credit reports at each of the credit reporting agencies to prevent the identity thief from using your personal information, such as your Social Security number, for future large purchases or lines of credit.
“Freezing your credit is the single best thing anyone can do to help prevent identity theft.”
Be diligent and change your passwords.
Even if you’ve taken the steps listed above, you won’t quite be out of the woods. You’ll have to be especially careful in the coming months.
“Change all your passwords, your login usernames, and your email address,” urged Drew Kellerman, founder of Phase 2 Wealth Advisors in Gig Harbor, Washington.
“If you direct your new email address to ‘pull’ mail from the old one, you don’t need to alert everyone you know about the change. Just make sure you do NOT instruct the old address forward messages to the new email. Doing so would provide a potential hacker with a portal to access your new email.
Kellerman also offered some advice to make your password more secure:
“Use a space. Security researchers obtained a list of 550 million passwords and found that only 0.03% used a space. A space works just like any other character in a password, but using one or more spaces increases the password’s strength.
“It turns out the longer the password, the more secure. It doesn’t need to be an unrecognizable mass of letters, numbers, and symbols. It simply needs to be long. Let’s assume that one of your favorite movies is the original Star Wars. What famous line will you NEVER forget from that film? ‘May the force be with you.’
“Many sites require symbols, numbers, upper and lower-case letters. You can work these requirements into your new passwords in a consistent manner that is easy to remember. For example, always start the sentence with an upper-case letter and finish the quote with the same symbol/number combination.
“Are you in the habit of writing down your passwords somewhere? Say you have an online bank account and are using ‘May the force be with you @1’ as the password. Put a memo in your smartphone or tablet that simply reads, ‘Bank: Mtfbwy@1.’ This will help trigger your memory of which password you are using with this account but will likely bewilder anyone else who gets ahold of your device.”
This password advice will be useful to prevent future identity theft as well. And speaking of preventing future identity theft, we’ll have more to say on that subject soon…
Drew Kellerman is the founder of Phase 2 Wealth Advisors in Gig Harbor, Washington.
Jeanne Kelly (@creditscoop) is an author, speaker, and coach who educates people to achieve a higher credit score and understand credit reporting. #HealthyCredit is her motto. As the founder of The Kelly Group in 2000 and the author of The 90-Day Credit Challenge, Jeanne Kelly is a nationally recognized authority on credit consulting and credit score improvement.
Justin Lavelle is a Scams Prevention Expert and the Chief Communications Officer of BeenVerified.com (@BeenVerified). BeenVerified is a leading source of online background checks and contact information. It helps people discover, understand and use public data in their everyday lives and can provide peace of mind by offering a fast, easy and affordable way to do background checks on potential dates. BeenVerified allows individuals to find more information about people, phone numbers, email addresses, and property records.
Robert Siciliano (@RobertSiciliano) is a #1 Best-Selling Author and CEO of Safr.Me. Safr.Me is funny but serious about teaching you and your audience fraud prevention and personal security. Robert is a United States Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla Staff Officer of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security whose motto is Semper Paratus (Always Ready). His programs are cutting edge, easily digestible and provide best practices to keep you, your clients and employees safe and secure. Your audience will walk away as experts in identity theft prevention, online reputation management, online privacy and data security.
Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor at Bentley University and author. He is one of the country’s leading experts in identity theft. His most recent book is “Identity Theft Alert.” He also writes the blog Scamicide.com (@Scamicide) where he provides daily updated information about the latest scams and identity theft schemes.
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