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If someone has stolen your identity, what can you do about it?

When you suspect someone has stolen your personal identifying information like your Social Security number (SSN), driver’s license number, date of birth and other similar data, you may feel angry, fearful or distraught. In our last post, we described ways to identify that your risk of identity theft has increased or to uncover fraudulent use of your identity.

For example, you could receive bills or collection notices for things you never bought or loans for which you did not apply – but someone masquerading as you did. Or, a business or bank might refuse your credit application because your credit report portrays you as a bad credit risk because of an identity thief’s activities in your name.

Today we will explain steps to correct credit damage and stop creditors from pursuing you under these circumstances.

First steps

If you suspect that you are the victim of identity theft, file a police report and keep a copy to help prove you did not make transactions the thief might make using your identity.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the federal agency that assists consumers with identity theft. At IdentityTheft.gov, complete an FTC online identity theft report. You can use your FTC affidavit and police report to help clear your name.

If you think your bank, credit card or other account numbers were compromised, contact the companies involved to change account numbers and check for unauthorized charges or withdrawals. You are not responsible for charges or withdrawals you did not authorize, and the bank or other company should reverse those charges.

Actions involving credit reporting bureaus

If your personal information was stolen but you do not know if the thief has used it, you can potentially identify fraudulent activity by regularly monitoring your credit reports from the three credit reporting bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). Check for suspicious financial activity. For example, does it show a defaulted loan you did not take out or late payments on credit accounts you did not open? Does it show credit inquiries you did not authorize? Are there addresses, aliases or other information that appears to have been changed?

You may pull one free report from each of the three bureaus annually through annualcreditreport.com. Rotate requests from one of the three bureaus every four months of the year, so you get a running snapshot of reported activity.

Place a free fraud alert on your credit reports by requesting it from one of the three credit reporting bureaus. That bureau will alert the other two to follow suit. A fraud alert lasts one year and is renewable or an extended fraud alert lasts seven years.

When a business checks your credit with a bureau, a fraud alert requires the creditor to verify the applicant’s identity before approving a credit application. This can prevent wrongful credit in your name or prompt the business to reach out to you at the phone number you provided for the alert.

Another option is to place a credit freeze, also called a security freeze, on your credit reports so potential creditors cannot see them (pre-existing creditors still can). Without confirmation of good credit, it is unlikely a new creditor would approve an identity thief’s application. You can temporarily lift the freeze if you want to apply for credit.

Contact creditors, debt collectors and credit bureaus

Send dispute letters to the credit bureaus if you see any errors on your credit report – merely sending a dispute letter to the credit card company or other creditor will not protect your rights. Explain the identity theft problem and tell the credit bureaus to remove from your reports information generated by the identity theft (including any accounts and inquiries into your credit), and to repair your credit score.

You can also send a copy of the dispute, with attachments, to the credit card companies, financial institutions, retailers and other creditors as well as to debt collectors that have contacted you about debts in your name for which you never applied. Demand that they remove your name from the account or reverse charges that you have not authorized.

Follow up with a second letter, if necessary. Use regular mail for dispute letters (rather than online portals or electronic communication) and include copies of your police and FTC reports, and any other documentation you have to support your dispute – the more documentation you can provide, the better off you will be. Some examples of relevant documents include handwriting samples, proof you were not physically where the transaction occurred if it was an in-person transaction, and any communications with the creditor or third party that show you did not authorize the transaction.

Legal remedies for identity theft

There are many state and federal laws that protect you from identity theft. The most important civil remedies may allow you to collect monetary damages, have fraudulent debts canceled, have your credit reports corrected or have collection agencies back off. For example, lawsuits may be appropriate under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), the Virginia Consumer Protection Act or state common law like fraud, negligence, breach of contract, infliction of emotional distress and others.