Contrary to what movies portray, the most common crimes are not Taken-style abductions or home invasions, but the theft of personal information. In fact, last year, identity theft and fraud cost consumers more than $16 billion, with about 15.4 million people counted as victims. This is up from $15.3 billion and 13.1 million, respectively, one year earlier.
Instead of going off the grid and conducting business from your newly built panic room, there are many easy steps you can take to protect your information in the first place, including using difficult passwords and shopping on secure sites. In the event of a worst case scenario in which your information is compromised, however, quick and decisive action can also help to minimize the damage.
Here's what you need to do if you're the victim of nefarious activity.
Keep tabs on your financial information
The first line of defense against identity theft is simply knowing that it happened, since you can't fix a problem if you aren't aware that it occurred! Experts say it's crucial to regularly monitor your existing financial accounts and credit reports. "The most effective way to keep tabs on all of these accounts is to regularly check them via your monthly statements, via online portals as often as you'd like [and] via mobile applications if they are provided," says identity theft expert and consultant Robert Siciliano, CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com. He adds that with some credit cards, you can also set up text or push notifications so you're informed of every charge. Whether you order Seamless every day or you can't stop buying loot boxes in your favorite video game, it's crucial to know that you're the only one spending your cash.
You should regularly check your credit report — not just your credit score — to ensure that no one has opened accounts in your name.
You should also regularly check your credit report (not just your credit score!) to ensure that no one has opened accounts in your name, says Manisha Thakor, Director of Wealth Strategies for Women at Buckingham Strategic Wealth. You can either keep an eye on the situation yourself or sign up for identity theft monitoring through a reputable company like LifeLock, IdentityForce or ID Watchdog, she says.
If you're going to monitor the situation on your own, you should request a credit report (again, not just your score, which doesn't give a full picture) from one of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) via AnnualCreditReport.com. Since you can get one free credit report from each of the three major bureaus annually, you should space them out so you can consistently keep an eye on your credit without having to shell out money. For example, request a credit report from Equifax in January, from Experian in April and from TransUnion in September. If you don't think you'll remember when it's time for your financial checkup, set up reminders on your phone — it's a perfect time to put those moneybags and credit card emojis to use.
It's easy for your eyes to glaze over once you download your report, but there are a few things you'll want to look for. Thakor recommends keeping your eyes peeled for any account that has been opened that you don't recognize. Do you get around via Uber and Lyft, yet spot a car loan? This should be a major red flag.
Other tiny details could also be a sign something is off. Incorrect identifying information, such as an address, could indicate that someone else is trying to use your identity.
If there is incorrect information on your credit report...
If you do find something off kilter on your report, reach out to the credit bureau and report the error — each bureau will have instructions for how to do so on their website. You may have to provide various forms of documentation and sign affidavits to get the mistake corrected, depending on what the problem is, Siciliano says.
According to Thakor, if it's something as simple as an account you have closed still showing as open or vice versa, that will likely be fairly straightforward to fix. "If you notice accounts that have been opened in your name that you did not open, that may be an administrative mistake on the part of the credit bureau — or more likely — a sign that your identity has been compromised," she says. "At this stage [it's] typically not necessary to hire a lawyer. In theory, by following the instruction on each credit bureau's site for reporting incorrect information you should be able to solve the problem for yourself."
Siciliano says you'll only need to escalate matters and hire a lawyer if the lender is contesting your claim of fraud and opts to litigate.
If your sensitive financial information is stolen…
If you suspect that your most sensitive personal information (like your Social Security number) has been snatched, then you'll want to freeze your credit with the three major credit bureaus, says Thakor. (Depending on the state, there may be a charge for the action.) This will prevent anyone from opening any additional accounts in your name.
"You should then be extra vigilant about monitoring activity on your credit cards and in your bank account," Thakor says. "I would suggest setting up alerts so you are texted each time any of your cards is used or any time there is activity in your bank accounts so you are getting real time information on the activity in your existing accounts."
If unauthorized accounts are opened in your name, you should also visit the identity theft site set up by the Federal Trade Commission and set up a recovery plan, which in more drastic situations can include serious steps like getting government IDs reissued or informing nagging debt collectors that you never racked up those charges.
You'll also want to gather "as much documentation as you can surrounding the theft," says Adrian A. Nazari, CEO of credit monitoring company Credit Sesame. "It is also a good idea to file a police report, as it can be an essential document in helping you recover from identity theft," he says.
As the situation gets resolved, it's important to remain as vigilant as ever. "It's also important that you are sure to always closely monitor your credit reports and financial accounts moving forward," Nazari says.
If your debit/credit card is stolen…
If you lose your credit or debit card, or notice strange charges on your accounts, call your bank immediately and speak to someone to let them know the card or number has been stolen, Nazari says. "Provide specific details about what happened and they will issue you a new card with a [new number]," he says.
According to Thakor, if it's a credit card, your liability is limited if you let the company know right away, which means you won't be liable for those fraudulent charges. "Note, if it's a debit card and someone actually takes money out of your account, it can take longer to get those funds back, making credit cards ironically 'safer' in some respects than debit [cards] in an era of widespread identity theft," she says.
If your bank account is compromised…
Sometimes, if funds are transferred directly out of the account, it could signal a larger problem than just your physical card. "If an account has funds transferred out of it, and the bank suspects the account number along with the routing number was the issue, then they will reissue full credentials [which often means username and password, account number and routing number]," Siciliano says. He later added, "If the existing account has been fully compromised and taken over, then it is no longer advantageous for the bank or the customer to function under those credentials."
There are various systems in place requiring authentication that sometimes prevent withdrawal with just the account number and routing number, Siciliano says, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. Consumers have 60 days to refute unauthorized Automated Clearing House (ACH) transactions, which is why regularly checking your bank account transactions is a good idea. (ACH transactions give an institution or other customer permission to debit directly from your checking or savings account, usually for a bill or vendor payment. You can also get direct deposit through an ACH transaction.) Similarly to fraud related to your debit or credit card, you'll have to reach out to your bank directly to flag the fraud. To protect yourself going forward, you can also put in place an ACH Debit Block, which prevents any ACH transactions from posting to your account, or an ACH Debit Filter, which only allows authorized transactions to go through.
Depending on the bank, it may take anywhere from one day to a few weeks to get the money back into your account, which is why it's crucial to act quickly if something is amiss. "The moment one recognizes unauthorized withdrawals they need to react," Siciliano says.