Identity Theft - Understanding your Rights as a Victim
Identity theft is a crime. Just like any other crime, you are entitled to certain rights as a victim. Many local governments, however, have yet to make adequate provisions, at the state level, for victims of identity theft and you may encounter some difficulty or “red tape” as you attempt to carry out certain actions necessary to restoring your identity. Therefore, it is important to not only be persistent, but also patient with those whom you are seeking help.
- You are entitled, by law, to file a police report in the jurisdiction where you live. By filing a police report you are entitled to the following:
- A 7-year fraud alert;
- A credit freeze;
- Have inaccurate or fraudulent information blocked from your credit report; and
- Receive a copy of all application and transaction records on accounts fraudulently opened in your name.
- Have any and all fraudulent accounts removed from your credit report once you have provided sufficient evidence that the accounts are indeed fraudulent. This removal includes any related collection actions and/or inquiries.
The first step recommended to put an immediate stop to identity theft is to close your accounts. Contact the security or fraud department of every company where accounts were opened fraudulently or used without authorization and have the accounts closed and reported, “closed at the customer’s request.”
One of the biggest mistakes identity theft victims can make during the ensuing panic brought on by the impact of identity theft is talking to the wrong people. Time is of the essence when it comes to minimizing the damage you sustain from identity theft. Talking to the wrong people can prove to be a very costly mistake. Company representatives that are not trained to handle identity theft issues (e.g. front of office customer service representatives) typically are not able to assist victims. Most companies employ a specific security or fraud department that handles and investigates issues related to identity theft. Should no such department exist, ask to speak with a manager.
File a Police Report
The next step recommended is to file a police report. The police report is vital to putting an immediate stop to identity theft. The police report serves two primary purposes:
- It documents the crime with law enforcement.
- The report will help you dispute unauthorized charges during the restoration process as this step is often required in many states by the credit bureaus and various financial institutions in order to lend legitimacy to your claim that your identity has been stolen.
If you have done some online research already, you might notice many people suggest filing your police report in the area where the theft took place. This is incorrect. Your identity resides with you. Therefore, the theft technically occurs wherever you are. What this means is that the courts in the county you reside will have jurisdiction over the case. However, as a precaution, should the theft take place outside of the area in which you reside, request the officer who files your police report to forward it to other relevant police departments as this may aid authorities in apprehending the identity thief.
When you file the report, you will need to provide as many details as possible, including information about specific accounts. This is important since you will most likely need to provide a copy to merchants and businesses where your identity has been used fraudulently to prove you were indeed a victim of identity theft. Therefore, make sure you obtain a copy for yourself. Additionally, it is imperative you take down the officer’s badge number, contact information and police report number filed and the date and time you filed the report.
Activate Fraud Alerts
Your next step should be activating fraud alerts. A fraud alert is a notice attached to your credit report placed by the major credit reporting companies that helps protect your credit information. Once a fraud alert is in place, anytime someone tries to open a credit account (credit card, loan, cell phone, etc.), the fraud alert notifies potential credit grantors to contact you by phone and verify that the person attempting to open the account is indeed you. Therefore, if you cannot be reached by phone at that time, the credit account should not be opened. Additionally, your name will be removed from all pre-approved credit and insurance offers for two years.
While this may seem like a preventive measure, placing a fraud alert on your credit report serves two recovery purposes.
- A fraud alert notifies potential creditors that you have been a victim of identity theft.
- As a result of the notification, a fraud alert protects you from further instances of identity theft by making creditors contact you and verify your identity before opening any new accounts or making any changes to your existing accounts.
There are three credit bureaus that can place a fraud alert on your report: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Once you have placed a fraud alert on your account with one of the three credit bureaus, that company is required, by law, to notify the other two credit reporting companies on your behalf within 24 hours. However, it is recommended that you call all three credit reporting companies individually.
Use the toll-free phone numbers for each credit bureau to place a fraud alert on your credit report. All three credit reporting companies use automated voice systems, so listen carefully for “fraud alert” before making your selection.
Once you have reached the fraud alert menu, the automated system will prompt you to answer a few biographical questions (e.g. your name, date of birth, address, phone number, and social security number). Being a victim of identity theft, you may feel apprehensive about giving out your personal information. However, this information is required for the credit bureaus to verify who you are and will not be given out or sold to solicitors.
If you are successful in placing a fraud alert on your account, you should receive a confirmation number, code, or told by a fraud department representative that you will receive confirmation from them within the next 2 weeks. This confirmation may arrive in the form of a free copy of your credit report, a letter asking if you would like a free copy of your credit report, or simply a call stating that a fraud alert has been placed on your file. We recommend you use this time to make sure you receive a copy of your credit report by requesting one up front - the credit reporting companies are required by law to send one to you. While a credit report is not directly related to putting an immediate stop to further instances of identity theft, it will be a vital piece of information for the restoration process.
Should the automated voice system ask you to write to them with documentation, this means that a fraud alert has not been placed on your account. The documentation requested by each credit reporting company varies. They may ask for a copy of your current utilities bill, driver’s license, or passport. Unfortunately, this lengthy process is common for identity theft victims. In addition to your fraud alert request, we recommend you also request your free credit report in the letter as well. Remember to make copies of everything you send to the credit reporting companies and send your letter certified with return receipt.
There are two types of fraud alerts you can activate. We recommend you activate the 90-day alert first as this is the quickest and easiest to complete. Once you have acquired more documentary evidence, for example your police report, you can opt to activate the extended fraud alert. The only difference between the two is that the extended fraud alert will stay on your credit report for up to seven (years) whereas the 90-day alert, as the name implies, will only remain on your credit report for ninety (90) days.
Complete the Identity Theft Affidavit
The final step we can recommend to putting an immediate stop to the effects of identity theft is to fill out the Identity Theft Affidavit. In partnership with the FTC, a group of credit grantors, consumer advocates and attorneys created what is known as the “Identity Theft Affidavit” to help victims of identity theft absolve themselves of false charges and debts.
Many companies have adopted the Identity Theft Affidavit in their fraud department’s protocol and it may be required, along with other supporting documents (e.g. police report) in order for you to obtain applications or other transaction records related to the theft of your identity. These records are important to the restoration process as they may help you prove that you are a victim. For example, you may be able to show that the signature on a credit application is not yours or that the application itself contains valuable information about the identity thief which may prove useful to law enforcement
The identity theft affidavit has two parts:
- The first part consists of the actual affidavit: this portion will ask you for general information about yourself and the identity theft.
- The second part is called the “Fraudulent Account Statement”: this portion will ask you to describe the fraudulent account(s) opened in your name. If more than one fraudulent account was opened, you will need to attach a separate Fraudulent Account Statement for each account to the back of your affidavit.
Much like a police report, it is important for you to be as honest and forthcoming as possible when filling out the Identity Theft Affidavit. Incorrect or incomplete information will slow the investigation process and the exoneration of your debt.
Many companies will accept your completed affidavit, however, they may require you to fill out and submit affidavits/forms of their own. Therefore, before you mail out a copy of your affidavit, contact each company to find out (1) if they accept the FTC’s Identity Theft Affidavit; and (2) what other information and/or documentation they require.
When you have completed the affidavit, mail a copy of your affidavit, relevant Fraudulent Account Statement, and other required documentation to each creditor, bank, or company that provided the identity thief with the unauthorized credit, goods, or services you described in your affidavit. Remember to send the appropriate documents to each company by certified mail, return receipt requested, so you can prove that it was received.
After a company receives your documentation, they should update you on the status of their investigations. However, if you have not received a response, you may want to contact the company’s fraud department to inquire about the status of your claim.
Throughout the course of the restoration process, you may receive numerous calls from collection agents demanding that you pay off fraudulent debt accumulated in your name. You may even be tempted to pay the bill, or a portion of a bill that was the result of fraud. Resist that temptation. You do not need to cover any fraudulent bills or checks that were written or cashed by the thief. With proper help and guidance, you will be able to reclaim your identity. Your credit rating should not be permanently affected and no legal action should be taken against you. Should a merchant, financial institution, or collection agency suggest otherwise, be patient and restate your willingness to cooperate. Do not however, allow yourself to be coerced into paying fraudulent bills. Remember, you are the victim.