10 things you must do if your identity is stolen

As cliché as it may sound, I never thought I would be a victim of identity theft. I have always been extremely careful with my personal information — shredding my personal documents, leaving my checkbook at home and only providing my social security number when it was absolutely required.

Even after having my information potentially exposed in a series of major data breaches, including the one involving Equifax, I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have. Somehow I couldn’t believe that the nearly 44%  of the U.S. population’s personal information being compromised could possibly include mine and the very idea of going through the credit freeze process felt like a huge inconvenience. Little did I know that dealing with fraudulent activity on my credit files would be far more work than credit freezes would ever be.

I finally motivated myself to go through the credit freeze process about two months after public awareness of the Equifax breach. I opened a Credit Karma account and that’s when I discovered the horrible truth: My credit scores had dropped nearly 300 points!

Further investigation uncovered a credit card in my name, nearly maxed out, that I had never opened. Days and weeks would follow, filled with phone calls to numerous companies, exhasting hold times and copious note keeping to restore my credit back to its original state. Believe it or not, I was one of the lucky ones. The condition of my credit could have been far worse if I had continued to procrastinate, resulting in even more work, stress and time to get a resolution. With constant daily work, I was able to sort out the fraudulent activity and repair my credit in about three to four weeks’ time.

Hopefully, you will never experience the feelings of violation and vulnerability that go hand-in-hand with identity theft, but if you , know that it is going to be a very time-consuming, frustrating and emotional journey. However, the sooner you act, the less complicated that it’s going to be. Here are the first 10 steps that you should take to report and start to repair your credit should you find yourself a victim of identity theft.

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Take these 10 steps now if you think you’re a victim of identity theft

1. Take notes

Keep a running list of every call you make related to your identity theft case, including the names of the institutions that you have contacted, when you called, who you spoke with, what was discussed and how the call ended. Be sure to note if there was any resolution or if follow-up will be needed, as well as any case, confirmation or reference numbers that you may need to keep for later.

2. Open an account with Credit Karma or Credit Sesame

It was actually in taking this step that I initially discovered the fraud issue. Both services are free and while Credit Karma, for example, only shows 2 of your 3 credit scores, it’s enough information to recognize when something is amiss. Be sure to create your account before taking any additional steps because you won’t be able to once your credit has been frozen.

RELATED: I just found out I was hacked twice, thanks to this free identity monitoring service

3. Request credit reports from all 3 credit bureaus

Everyone is allowed at least one free credit report annually from each of the credit bureaus and this information is going to be valuable in identifying any additional fraudulent activity that may not show up on Credit Karma or Credit Sesame. For example, I discovered an incorrect mailing address that the fraudsters had provided in their attempts to apply for loans and lines of credit. I was also able to trace recent hard inquiries back to banks, credit cards, cell phone companies and others that the fraudsters had tried to open accounts with. You can request the reports directly through the credit bureaus directly or Annualcreditreport.com.

4. Freeze your credit with all 3 credit bureaus

You can read more on how to do that here. Once completed, you will receive PINs from each bureau, over the phone and/or by mail. Put these PINs in a safe place, as they will be required any time you want to thaw or re-freeze your credit. The cost to freeze or thaw your credit varies by state, but generally runs from free to $10 per credit bureau with each action. This is a small price to pay for financial peace of mind.

5. Contact the institutions where you see fraudulent activity

Whether it’s a credit card, mortgage, bank account, or some other financial action that you didn’t initiate, call each institution to report the fraud and request that these accounts be closed immediately. You don’t want these fraudulent accounts to further affect your credit. The credit bureaus will also check with these institutions when attempting to resolve your fraud issues, and this will help the process move along much faster if they already know about it.

6. Contact all 3 bureaus and issue a fraud alert with each one

Notify each credit bureau of any activity and personal information that you don’t recognize. It’s recommended to do this before the credit reports arrive in order to limit any further damage to your credit. Follow up if you find any additional information or activities on the credit reports that don’t belong to you.

7. File a police report

Call your local police department to file a report. You may be transferred to the fraud prevention department if there is one. Provide any information that you have about the fraudsters — like the fraudulent mailing address in my case — and details of what accounts have been opened, stolen from and even applied for in your name. Follow up if you uncover additional information that may be of value. In my case, I found out that an individual visited two different banks pretending to be me.  Since banks have cameras all over the place, this helped police obtain a visual of at least one of the fraudsters. Get a copy of the police report and keep a copy on your person. If someone wrote back checks in your name you could have a warrant out for your arrest and this is hugely beneficial to have on hand.

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8. Call the Social Security Administration’s fraud alert line (800-269-0271) and the Federal Trade Commission, which keeps a database to identify thefts (877-FTC-HELP)

Let them know what has happened to you.

9. Contact your current banks and credit card companies to report fraudulent activity in your name

Whether or not the fraudsters have been able to access your bank accounts or legitimate credit cards, it’s hugely beneficial to let your institutions know that your personal information has been compromised. In many cases, they can add additional layers of security to your accounts to further protect yourself.

10. Follow up

The work, unfortunately, doesn’t end once your credit has been restored, and the constant need for follow-up will likely be life-long. Initially, make sure to follow up with the credit bureaus to ensure that all fraudulent activity has been removed. All three bureaus will send you an amended credit report, at no extra charge, with all updated information. Check these thoroughly to make sure nothing fraudulent remains and that nothing legitimate was removed accidentally. Set up reminders to check your account on Credit Karma or Credit Sesame biweekly or at least once a month to make sure that everything continues to look as it should. Also, pull your free credit reports as frequently as you are allowed to receive them.

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