Take swift, protective action if your identity is stolen

Federal and state laws provide legal remedies for fraudulent activity based on your wrongfully used information.

The thought of having your identity stolen can send a shiver down your spine. We all have heard horror stories of people whose lives were hijacked by identity thieves who ruined credit, created debts in victims' names and more. If this happens to you, there are steps to take to recover your good name and eliminate liability that you did not create.

An attorney can advise you about your legal options, including potential lawsuits.

Identity theft

The Federal Trade Commission or FTC provides public information online about the nature of identity theft. Identity theft is a crime in which another person uses your personal information in a fraudulent way without your permission and usually without your knowledge. Examples of identity-theft crimes:

  • Using your credit card to make purchases
  • Opening new credit cards in your name
  • Hurting your credit by opening multiple accounts in your name or by having bills sent to another location than to you and not paying them
  • Obtaining your tax refund
  • Establishing utility accounts or signing leases in your name
  • Obtaining loans in your name
  • Using your medical insurance
  • Claiming to be you if stopped or arrested by police

Information targeted

Information typically stolen includes your name and address, date of birth, Social Security numbers, credit card account numbers, banking information, medical insurance information and more. Your information could physically be stolen such as by taking your mail, garbage, wallet or purse, or from your home in a burglary; by viewing your account numbers when you use them in public; by an employee in a business, financial institution, medical, professional or government office that uses your information in the course of business; by the use of devices to capture information at ATMs or gas pumps; or online in a variety of ways.

Evidence of stolen identity

Everyone should review physical and electronic mail, bills and banking activity on alert for anything unusual that could be evidence of identity theft. Make a police report about each instance of fraud to trigger criminal investigation into the matter. Police reports can support your efforts to remove liability for debts fraudulently opened in your name.

If you discover purchases or withdrawals that you did not make, you should immediately request that the merchant, credit card company or bank remove the liability from your account. You should ask that they follow their procedures against fraudulent activity. For example, they should investigate the problem and restore your accounts to their prefraud status.

If such an entity refuses, talk to an attorney about negotiating with the merchant or bank on your behalf. If negotiation is not successful, it may be necessary to file a lawsuit to protect your credit and resolve you of liability.

Credit reports

You should periodically request a copy of your credit report. (You can get one free report annually from each credit reporting agency.) Are there accounts reported there that you did not open? Were inquiries made about your creditworthiness by entities you did not approach for credit?

You may be alerted that your identity has been taken if you are uncharacteristically turned down for credit based on negative activity on your credit report not generated by you.

If your credit report has been compromised, you should ask all three of the major credit agencies to place security freezes on your records. This should stop identity thieves from opening new accounts under your name because the credit reporting agencies will not give out your credit rating while frozen.

The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act or FCRA allows you to dispute inaccurate information in your credit reports. FCRA requires the reporting agency to investigate and correct inaccurate or unverifiable information.

Your lawyer can communicate on your behalf with any credit agency that is not responsive to you. Sometimes, your attorney may recommend a lawsuit against a reporting agency for a FCRA violation

Problematic creditors and debt collectors

Merchants, credit card companies and lenders may turn over fraudulent, unpaid debts in your name to debt collectors or collection agencies. Debt collectors can be extremely persistent in their efforts to get you to pay, even if you dispute the debt based on identity theft. There are strict state and federal laws against creditor and debt-collector harassment and an attorney can use these laws on your behalf to stop the harassment.

For example, the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or FDCPA makes it illegal for a debt collector to continue attempting to collect a debt when they have information indicating that it was opened without your knowledge or permission. Even if you do owe the debt, the FDCPA prohibits debt collectors from taking certain actions like calling you early in the morning or late at night, using profanity or abusive language, making empty threats to have you arrested or sue you, continuing to call you after you have stated in writing that you dispute the debt, failing to tell you that you can dispute the debt and more.

In some cases, it may be appropriate to sue a creditor or debt collector under the FDCPA for damages for harassment. If you suffer any actual damages - including stress, aggravation, embarrassment, as well as out of pocket damages - as a result of a debt collector's wrongful actions, then you can recover these damages from the debt collector. Statutory damages are also available of up to $1,000 per violation plus legal fees. 

Attorney Tom Breeden of the law firm Thomas R. Breeden, P.C., in Manassas represents identity-theft victims in Prince William County, Fairfax County and across the state.