Identity Theft: What to Do if You’re Affected

Identity theft can be an extremely damaging experience that takes a lot of time to overcome. When someone steals your personal information, they can use it to make fraudulent purchases that deplete your bank accounts, hurt your credit score or even result in a criminal record under your name.

How identity theft happens

Fraudsters are constantly on the lookout for new ways to gain access to people’s personal information. The most common methods of doing this include:

  • Phishing scams and fraudulent sales emails that claim to be coming from an official institution or someone you know and request that you click on a link or provide personal information
  • Data breaches or hacking incidents, which occur when bad actors gain access to large databases containing customers’ or citizens’ personal information
  • Social engineering tactics used by scammers, which involve exploiting characteristics like gullibility and burnout by luring people to give them personal information, often through phishing, fraudulent phone calls pretending to be from a trusted institution or spoof email requests that appear to be from people you know requesting wire transfers
  • Holiday shopping scams in which fraudsters take advantage of shoppers by listing fake products online and luring them into making a fraudulent purchase

By being aware of these techniques and vigilant for any signs of identity theft, you can avoid the damage that comes along with it altogether or mitigate it immediately when it does happen.

How to prevent identity theft

The most important measures you can take to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft include:

  • Creating unique passwords for every online account and changing them every 60 to 90 days
  • Shredding all paper trash that contains personal information using a crosscut or confetti shredder (this includes checks, junk mail and personal documents)
  • Removing your mail from the mailbox as soon as possible; holding mail through USPS if you’ll be out of town
  • Minimizing financial and personal information carried on your person or in public, especially your social security number
  • Opting out of credit card solicitations and shredding the ones that come in the mail
  • Avoiding sharing personal or account information with anyone unless you know who you’re communicating with and you made the initial contact
  • Being aware of current scams such as the Colorado Lotto scam, the Canadian Lotto/Sweepstakes scam or the Jamaican Switch (many scams are described in this Federal Trade Commission [FTC] guide to fake prizes and sweepstakes)
  • Setting up fraud alerts and putting a reminder on your calendar to check your bank and credit card accounts weekly. The three nationwide credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — have a centralized website, toll-free telephone number, and mailing address so you can order your free annual reports in one place
  • Securing your credit and debit cards along with any documents containing your social security number in safe, locked locations 

If you’re diligent in protecting your personal information, you are less likely to have someone steal it. But just in case, it’s still important to be vigilant for signs of identity theft and fraud so that if it does happen, you can minimize damage as soon as possible. 

Warning signs of identity theft

There are several common clues that indicate identity theft, including:

  • Unexplained withdrawals from your bank accounts or charges on your credit card
  • Bills or collection notices for accounts you didn’t open
  • Missing mail or emails you were expecting that contain sensitive information

If you notice any of these signs, it’s important to take action immediately.

What to do if you’re affected by identity theft

If you have been a victim of identity theft, take the following actions right away:

  • Contact your local law enforcement agency and file a police report 
  • Notify your bank and close the affected account
  • Notify all of your credit card companies and any other financial institutions where you have accounts  
  • File a report with the FTC (the identity theft hotline is 1-877-438-4338)

For detailed contact information to help you check your credit, place a fraud alert on your name and Social Security number, report identity theft to the FTC and more, visit our ID Theft Victim Information page.