It all started with a warning.
In February 2019, I was on vacation abroad when I received an email confirming that I had just used all of my airline points to purchase gift cards. Then someone else came along and told me I had done the same thing with all of my hotel points.
The problem is, I hadn't done any of those things.
I tried desperately to contact both companies to report the scam. Both tried to send me password change requests that I did not receive. You blocked my accounts.
Then I got other notifications and warnings. Someone had my registrations for multiple websites and nefarious things came up very quickly.
Fast forward to December 2020 when I received another warning. Someone tried to apply for multiple credit cards, loans, and unemployment benefits on my behalf and using my information.
I panicked again.
Then the mail came in saying that various financial institutions and government agencies needed more information in order to approve my loans and requests for assistance.
Again someone used my personal information to commit fraud and steal my identity.
According to the 2020 identity fraud report published by Javelin Strategy & Research in May 2020, there were 13 million identity fraud cases in 2019 that cost $ 16.9 billion.
Identity theft certainly took a long time to resolve issues and restore my accounts to their pre-theft state.
I've learned a lot along the way about what to do if you are a victim of identity theft.
How we got here
The Javelin Report predicts that criminals will keep trying to take what is not theirs by doing what they did to me. We make it too easy for them.
"We were tied to advances in technology," said John Buzzard, fraud and security analyst at Javelin Strategy & Research. "We have been tied to certain identifiers that are incredibly dangerous because they are out of date and everywhere."
It relates to things like social security numbers, date of birth, and knowledge-based questions.
"All of these things worked for a long time because we really didn't have the socio-technological advances," said Buzzard.
Now we're a convenience company that's used to paying at the gas pump, stealing credit cards and shopping online. And while we probably don't believe it, we've been sharing information, he warned.
Combine this with what is available from public records and a pretty complete picture of a person is readily available online.
Google itself. It's terrifying.
The Javelin poll says technology is there to protect us better, but consumers aren't always quick to adopt it. It is also suggested that the conversation must move from monitoring activity to better securing information so that it cannot be stolen at all.
But until that happens, information will fall into the wrong hands. If this is the case for you, there are several things you should do to control the damage.
Protect what is yours
When you watch someone drain your accounts in real time like me, protecting what you have from further harm is imperative and time sensitive.
The first thing you need to do is grab a notebook and write down everything you do to stop the bleeding. It's hard to remember what you did and didn't do when you change passwords, notify companies, etc.
Some of the reports you will need to fill out require details, and those details can be difficult to remember.
- Which accounts are affected, how are they affected and when did it happen?
- The name and company ID of someone you talk to about the theft and when you will talk to them.
- Telephone number of this person.
- What they tell you so you can check things off while you do them.
Screenshots and photos are also helpful, especially for keeping track of your account balance.
As soon as you become aware of a problem, instantly change the passwords for each email, bank, credit card, and e-commerce account.
This is very important as many companies send a message to reset a password. If a scammer is in control of your email account, you won't get it. You will be.
That was part of my problem during my first round of identity theft. I didn't notice, but someone had set up my email password and forwarding all of my email with certain keywords. So I didn't see them ordering things and resetting passwords.
Increase account security
Enable two-factor authentication for everything you sign in to. In addition to a password, a code is required to log in. The one-time code is often sent via email, text message, or phone call.
Contact a financial institution that you currently do business with. You can label your accounts and add extra security measures beyond what is normally available.
"You need to protect the real world relationships you have, and most of these companies – whether your bank, credit card, or utility – identify and authenticate you and add a variety of security phrases to your account. When someone calls and tries a verbal To perform the account transfer, he needs a security phrase, ”said Buzzard.
Remember, you will also need this security phrase if you call for any reason to authenticate your identity.
After Tiffani Sherman's identity was stolen, she filed reports with law enforcement and reported the fraud to any financial institution where someone tried to use her information. Pictured is a letter from a financial institution confirming Sherman's case. Chris Zuppa / The Penny Hoarder
Keep information up to date
Make sure companies you do business with have updated information on how to find you. They can't tell you about cheating if they can't reach you.
"There are a lot of people who don't change their address (their bank or other account holders) because they submit a forwarding order and then are lazy for a whole year because they know their mail will follow them," Buzzard said.
Other actions you may want to take:
- Filing a Form 14039 with the IRS: This IRS identity theft affidavit notifies the Internal Revenue Service that someone has your personal information and may attempt to file a tax return using your Social Security number and get your refund if you are eligible have one.
- Get an IP PIN for the IRS: The Identity Protection PIN is a six-digit number that prevents someone from filing a tax return electronically using your Social Security number. Every tax year you will receive a new IP PIN that you can use to store.
- Check your Social Security Statement: You can use an account with the Social Security Agency to review your earnings on your Social Security Statement to make sure they are correct.
- Contact the DMV: if you think someone has used your driver's license license number for fraud (such as using your DL number and personal information with the photo), you can monitor that number and sometimes even change.
- Track your logins: Many platforms will tell you when you last logged in. This can be helpful if you see a login at 3 a.m. and you were in bed at 3 a.m.
Protect your funds
It is very important to protect your funds.
Placing a fraud notification on your balance is a security method. If you contact any of the three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, or Transunion, all three will be given annual fraud alerts.
Fraud alerts are far from foolproof, however.
“A fraud notice is a notice on your credit report stating that everyone must contact you and check with you before granting credit. That should be good protection, and if it works the way it (the offices) said it would be, ”said Steven Weisman, identity theft and cybersecurity expert and founder of Scamicide. "But honestly, most of the time, fraud warnings are ignored and there is no real penalty for a company not calling you and following a fraud warning."
A basic fraud notification expires after one year. After that, your credit will no longer be protected.
A better way to protect your balance is to place a loan freeze on each of the three credit bureaus. This is to prevent a loan application from being approved on your behalf.
"It's not too late for someone who already has their information out there," said Weisman. "In fact, it's more important because you know they have your information."
Here are links to the three major credit bureaus to freeze your credit.
While signed in to their websites, request and read copies of your credit reports at a time. Your credit report will contain a list of all open lines of credit and everything you have applied for during a given period of time.
As I looked at my credit report, I noticed several more attempts to apply for a loan that I didn't know about. Each bureau's report contains different information. Therefore, it is important to search through each piece of information.
If you find something that is not correct, make a note of the financial institution, the date of the loan application, and any other information listed. You will need it later.
Finally, open a dispute over anything that is incorrect. Keep an eye on any disputes you submit and make sure they are removed.
After Sherman found out that her identity had been stolen, he called the emergency number of her local sheriff's office. They took her information, and someone from the investigative operations office at the White Collar Crime Division called to inquire. Chris Zuppa / The Penny Hoarder
File reports with the right authorities
Two questions everyone will ask you when you talk about identity theft: Do you know who stole your information and do you think law enforcement will intercept it?
While I would like to believe that the people who have given me so much trouble will end up in handcuffs, I realistically know that this is likely not to happen.
Even so, you should file a report with your local law enforcement agency and the Federal Trade Commission. Many financial institutions will request copies of these reports when you report fraud to them.
For the reports, you will need all of the information you wrote down about each incident in order to document what happened to you.
I called my local sheriff's non-emergency number, and after they got my initial information, someone from the Investigative Operations Bureau in the White Collar Crime Division called me and asked for details of each incident.
After a few weeks I was able to request a copy of this report.
The report at the FTC will allow you to tell them what happened and create a personal recovery plan. You can also download and save a copy of this report.
Report the fraud to the financial institutions involved
Congratulations. You have just completed the simple steps in dealing with identity theft. From here on it gets harder and much more frustrating.
Now you need to contact every financial institution that someone has tried to use your information and report it as a fraud.
The last time I went through I received letters in which I was either asked for more information about filling out applications, told me about rejections, or welcomed me to their financial "family".
Every letter means at least one phone call – and often a lot more. Unfortunately, the victim has to prove that something is theft.
Every time I called the phone numbers on the letter and told them I wanted to report fraudulent activity, they said they needed information to verify my identity.
Guess what they asked me? The same information the scammers used to apply for the accounts, usually name, address, social security number, and date of birth.
Everything was rarely settled after a phone call. Several institutions asked me to send them copies of the FTC or law enforcement report, or both. Others let me fill out their forms.
My frustration increases with every call.
Eventually, you will receive letters from each financial institution stating that they have completed their investigations, reported the activity as a fraud, and asked for it to be removed from your credit reports.
Unfortunately, now that my information is out there, I know that I may become a victim of identity theft again.
"It doesn't mean that you are being hacked all the time, but it does mean that you really need to be vigilant all the time," Weisman said. "Once the information is out there, the best thing you can do is keep watch."
I'm lucky. I can only hope the scammers move on to someone else, and Weisman says there are good chances of that.
“Very often they are looking for freshly found personal information just because these people are less vigilant, but this is just something you will have forever. You just have to be eternally vigilant. If you're not the low hanging fruit, they will leave you because there is a lot of low hanging fruit out there. "
Let's hope so.
Tiffani Sherman is a Florida-based freelance reporter with over 25 years of experience writing on finance, health, travel, and other topics.
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