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What to Do If Your Identity Is Stolen

Ever wake up in the morning hoping to deal with a stolen identity? No? Me either. But it can happen to anyone—in fact, it's happened to me. And in 2019 alone identity thieves stole $16.9 billion from their victims!1 When ID theft happens, it could mean some weirdo’s using personal details like your Social Security number or bank account to do anything from going on shopping sprees to filing a tax return in your name. 

Getting everything back to the way it was can be intimidating—like a months-long effort to climb over a mountain. How do you even begin to put things straight? As someone who's been through it, take it from me: You can get your life back. And we’re going to walk with you through some practical steps to get that done.

How to Know if Someone Stole Your Identity

First things first. Having your identity stolen isn’t always something that’s immediately obvious. There are certain things to look for if you have a sense that this might have happened to you.

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Lots of things could happen that would strongly indicate somebody’s gotten ahold of your info and used it to do fraud. None of the following signs on their own would prove you’re a victim of theft (could just be an error), but if you notice one or more of these, it’s definitely time to check. (We’ll talk next about steps to check for ID theft.)

  • Getting calls from debt collectors about accounts you didn’t open
  • A charge on your credit card statement you don’t recognize
  • Medical bills you don’t recall, or medical denials you weren’t expecting
  • Paper bills no longer coming in the mail
  • Your credit card statement listing a new account you don’t know
  • A rising credit score even though you’ve initiated no new debt
  • A dipping credit score even though you’re current on all payments
  • Being unexpectedly denied for a loan
  • Having your tax return rejected (because some thief already filed on your behalf to get your return) or receiving a tax transcript you never requested

Again, if one or more of those has come to your attention, there are two key steps you should take right now to see whether your ID has been stolen:

  1. Check all bank and credit card statements. That’s something you ought to be doing all the time anyway. But especially if you have a suspicion that you’ve been a victim of ID theft, go over all the statements closely and carefully.
  2. Run a free credit report on yourself. You’re entitled to one free report every year from each credit agency (so that’s three free reports per year). This is a quick and easy way to find ID theft.

Hopefully you’re not gonna find anything. But in case you do discover evidence of ID theft, don’t panic! At this point, the next logical step is to figure out how to prove that your identity was actually stolen so you can prepare to get your life back and start to recover.

How Can You Prove Someone Stole Your Identity?

Once you spot those mysterious charges or credit card statements coming out of nowhere, the theft will be clear—to you! But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the businesses where the fraud occurred will agree. You’ll want to know how to go about proving the theft occurred.

Contact Each Business’ Fraud Department

A good first step is to contact each and every business where someone pretended to be you while opening accounts or making purchases. In particular, connect with their fraud department—sometimes called the Fraud Squad—because that’s their whole job, and most companies will have one.

Share What You Know About the Theft

Next be sure to let them know that the activity they’ve seen in your name is fake. If they ask for proof, you might want to mention any other examples you’ve already found where fraud was happening in your name. The fraud department will be well aware of how often these things happen. Depending on how quickly your ID thief was moving, or how much damage they were doing, the size of their crime might speak for itself as fraud. Either way, most businesses will be eager to help you stop further fraud from happening on their end.

Freeze Accounts

We’ll cover this in more detail below, but you should definitely ask each business to close or freeze the accounts where you’ve detected fraud.

File With the Federal Trade Commission

Finally, be sure to report your ID theft to the Federal Trade Commission. They have the resources to begin an investigation, find out what happened, and hopefully find the perp.

How Long Does It Take to Recover From Identity Theft?

Unfortunately, there's no scientific way to know for sure how long this will take. Quite a bit of the timeline will depend on the type of fraud you suffered. For example, if your case is a simple one of a stolen credit card without any other theft of sensitive info, it could be as quick as reversing the charges and replacing the card. Maybe about a week.

But it can be more complicated—and take a lot longer than a week! Imagine the all-too-common experience of somebody stealing your Social Security number and using it to open fake accounts in your name. You could be looking at many months of talking with creditors and the credit reporting agencies to dispute the charges and prove you’re not responsible for them.

And what about running up tax debt in your name, not to mention committing major crimes? It could take years to reverse all the damage to your personal identity.

How Can I Get My Life Back After Identity Theft?

Having your identity stolen is a serious violation, and if there’s been a financial impact on top of the ID theft, it can really get you down. I understand this firsthand. It sucks. 

But I'm here to give you some hope for what’s ahead, and some practical steps to get things back to normal. So keep this in mind: You can get out of this mess and restore control of your personal information. Here’s what you need to do:

1. Ask for a fraud alert to be placed on your credit account.

If you discover you’ve been a victim of identity theft, contact one of the three main credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) and have them place a fraud alert on your information. Once you’ve contacted one agency, they’ll let the other two know.

Having a fraud alert in place is helpful if you were involved in a data breach or had your Social Security card, driver’s license or bank account information stolen. If someone tries to apply for a loan or new credit card with your info, the credit bureau lets creditors know an extra security check needs to happen to confirm the applicant’s identity.

Placing a fraud alert doesn’t cost you anything, and it can be renewed annually. You can also request an extended fraud alert that lasts up to seven years if you have been a confirmed victim of identity theft and have filed a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). And if you have an extended fraud alert, you can get two free credit reports from each of the credit bureaus every year.  

2. Put a freeze on your credit report with all three credit bureaus.

Putting a freeze on your credit report is different from a fraud alert because it cuts off anyone from getting access to your credit report without your permission. With a credit freeze, you’ll have to contact all three credit bureaus individually, but it’s still free!

Once your credit report is frozen, the credit bureaus can’t release your credit information without your permission to lift the freeze, and you’ll have to do that either over the phone, online or in writing. You’ll want to lift the freeze if you’re applying for a job or moving to a new home and your credit report needs to be checked.

You can put a freeze on your report even if you’re not sure you’ve been a victim of identity theft, so it’s an effective, proactive step to take.  

But the main aim of a credit freeze is to make it harder for someone who stole your personal information to take on debt in your name. The fraud alert I mentioned earlier is what stops thieves from getting any further (because of that extra security check).

3. File a police report.

Since it is a crime to steal someone’s personal identity and use it to commit a fraudulent act, you should file a police report. Even if it looks like the thief is operating online or in a different country, you should still contact your local police department to file a report. 

This is important for a few reasons:

  • Filing a police report can help support your claim when you’re dealing with any incoming collection calls wanting you to pay accounts that were opened in your name.
  • You’re helping the police with any ongoing identity theft cases they might be working on—especially if the thief is operating locally.
  • If the thief uses your information to commit another crime (in your name!), the police will have a record of you filing this initial identity theft incident that can help their investigation.

4. File a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

When it comes to identity theft, time really is money. Your next step is to make sure you’ve notified the Federal Trade Commission of your stolen identity through their online service.

If you report your identity theft to the FTC within two business days of discovering it, you will only be liable to pay $50 of any unauthorized use of your bank and credit accounts (under federal law). The longer you leave it, the more that financial liability falls on your shoulders.2

Once you’ve filed your report, you’ll be able to put together your own recovery plan with their help, along with some assistance in each step. Just get ready to buckle in for a long journey.

You can then track the recovery progress of your personal information. Within their recovery plan, the FTC will help you fill out forms and will provide sample letters when you’re writing to credit bureaus, banks or debt collectors—or anyone else you might have forgotten about. Because finding the right words (other than “help!”) can be tough during a time like this.

Having this official FTC report also helps confirm that your identity was stolen when you’re writing to debt collectors or fraud departments, and when you’re filing a police report.

5. Check your bank and credit card statements and credit reports.

If you haven’t already, take some time to comb through your bank account and credit card statements, along with your current credit report.

You can request your credit report for free from each of the reporting agencies through annualcreditreport.com once a year. Stagger these so you can check one credit report every four months. Look at these documents and flag anything that screams, “I didn’t open that account!” Now is the time to highlight them to help your case.

Then, you can dispute any information on your credit report that’s false, incorrect and a result of the identity theft.

6. Get any fraudulent account records from debt collectors.

Don’t ignore any letters or calls you may receive from debt collectors following an identity theft. Stay ahead of the game by informing them in writing of your identity being stolen. You should also give them a copy of your FTC report to back it up.

Here’s what you can ask from debt collectors when you write to them:   

  • Ask to see any information (from the telephone number used by the fraudster to open the fake account to copies of application forms and statements listing fraudulent transactions) they might have on you resulting from the identity theft.
  • Ask them to stop contacting you with collection notices that you don’t owe. Let's face it: No one likes hearing from debt collectors—but especially not when it isn’t your fault in the first place!

Remember: You are within your rights to obtain written information about that debt—but you have to put your request in a physical letter to the debt collector. The FTC even provides sample letters for you. And if you’re looking for extra peace of mind, send your letter with a certified mail receipt so you can track when they’ve received it.

By writing to the debt collectors, you’re also ensuring that they’re prohibited from reporting any fraudulent accounts that have been set up in your name to the credit bureaus.

7. Contact your bank’s fraud department.

Your bank has a fraud department, so call to tell them what happened. They’ll let you know what steps to take regarding your current bank account. They might even advise you to close your accounts and open new ones if it means limiting the damage of the theft.  

8. Contact your utility provider and other account fraud departments.

Fraudsters can use your information to set up anything from medical insurance to utilities in your name. I know—it’s ridiculous.

If any utility providers, credit card companies, loan specialists, debt collectors or insurance companies are sending you bills for things you don’t actually owe, you need to reach out to them ASAP and let them know your identity was stolen.

Even if you haven’t received any bogus bills from your providers or credit card companies, go ahead and contact them anyway. Because if one of your accounts was hacked, chances are, the others are also at risk.

Stolen identities can even be used to file tax returns in your name. If you think your information has been used to file a fraudulent tax refund claim, contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

9. Close any fake accounts that were created in your name.

Remember how you already combed through your credit report and noted charges that weren’t yours?

By now, you’ve contacted the three credit bureaus and the FTC, so it’s time to clean up and close down any accounts that have been opened without your knowledge.

Reach out to those companies’ fraud departments (whether it’s a bank, utility company or insurance provider) and shut down all the accounts falsely opened in your name. Use any FTC reference numbers on your identity theft report to back you up.

10. Report if your personal identification was stolen.

If identification like your Social Security card, driver’s license or passport is stolen, you should contact the relevant agencies immediately so they’re aware of the theft and can start the process of replacing them:  

  • Social Security Card: Contact the Social Security Administration for a replacement online. If you suspect your Social Security number has already been used fraudulently, contact the Office of the Inspector General to report it.
  • Driver’s License: Contact your local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to report the theft and get a replacement.
  • Passport: Contact the U.S. Department of State to report the theft and arrange a replacement.

11. Update your passwords and usernames.

Now it’s time to update those usernames and passwords. Change any passwords linked to accounts that were or could be affected by identity theft immediately. If you use the same password for every account you have, it’s time to change them all.

Your passwords should never match or contain your name or date of birth—that just makes them easier to guess! Things like “password0” and “abc123” just don’t cut it anymore. I recommend that you use a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters to keep it complicated and difficult for identity thieves to guess.

This, along with other steps to protect yourself from identity theft (like shredding sensitive documents and not carrying your Social Security card around with you), will help you be more secure in the long run.

12. Look at your recovery options.

By now, you might be starting to realize this whole recovery process can take a few months or even years, depending on how severe the damage is. That’s why it’s important to take action as soon as you realize your identity has been stolen.

The hours involved in getting your identity back really are a huge mountain to climb on your own. Does your bank or fraud protection even offer recovery and restoration services?

If it turns out your identity theft “protection” was no more than an email letting you know your identity was stolen, it’s time to get with the experts at Zander Insurance. Since they are a RamseyTrusted provider, you know they’ve got your back.

You can get comprehensive identity theft restoration services so that if this happens to you (or if it happens again), a Certified Recovery Specialist will save you countless hours and all the legwork that’s required to recover from an identity theft.

George Kamel

About the author

George Kamel

George Kamel is a personal finance expert and host of The Fine Print Podcast. Since 2013, George has served at Ramsey Solutions where he teaches on how to spend less money, save more, and avoid consumer traps. He is also the host of The EntreLeadership Podcast.

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