If you have ever misplaced a driver’s license or wallet, you know what comes next: that awful sense of fear and panic.
Usually, luck is on our side, and we quickly find the missing object – or at least remember where we left it. Those who aren’t so lucky, though, are liable to find themselves plunged into the murky and confusing world of identity theft.
When it happens to you, “you go through every emotion,” said Mark Medley, an Albuquerque man who was a victim when his wallet went missing in 2001. “You’re depressed and angry, and then you go through panic and confusion.”
Last week, I talked about ways to protect yourself. This week’s column is about the steps you can take to repair any damage and to close off avenues the thief might use to empty your checking account or charge up debt on your plastic.
The best defense is speed; the sooner you act, the more effective you can be.
“Acting quickly is the best way to make sure that this crime does not get out of control,” says a brochure from the state Attorney General’s Office. “The longer you wait, the more money you lose and, potentially, the greater the damage to your credit.”
If the theft isn’t as obvious as a missing wallet – say, a bank statement taken out of your mailbox or private information lifted from your garbage can – here are some things that should clue you in about your victimhood:
- Merchants refuse your checks.
- You see unexplained withdrawals from your bank account.
- Debt collectors call you about debts, and you have no idea what they’re talking about.
- Your health plan rejects a legitimate claim because records show you’ve reached your limit.
- The IRS notifies you that more than one tax return was filed in your name, or that you have income from an employer you don’t work for.
- Worst case: You are arrested for a crime someone else committed in your name. “I hear from people who didn’t know their identity was stolen and were hauled off to jail in the middle of the night,” said Medley, who started a nonprofit to help others, called ID Theft Resolutions.
Below is a list of steps to take, once you know someone out there is pretending to be you, according to the AG and the Federal Trade Commission. (The FTC has published an easy-to-use workbook – called “Taking Charge” to walk you through all this, with a list of contacts and samples of letters you might need to file. There’s a copy at consumer.ftc.gov/articles/pdf-0009-taking-charge.pdf. You can also get a copy from the regional Better Business Bureau, 346-0110)
- The first thing to do about an identity theft is to contact police and file a report. Get a copy – or at least the number on the report – because you will need this as documentation.
- Seek an initial fraud alert. The free alert, which stays on your credit report for 90 days, will require a business to verify your identity before it issues credit in your name. (Make sure the credit reporting companies have your current contact information so they can reach you.)You can also get a free copy of your credit report, which will show questionable accounts, debts or inquiries from companies you don’t know. You can get your report and request the alert by contacting one of the three nationwide credit reporting companies: Equifax, 1-800-525-6258; Experian, 1-888-397-3742 or TransUnion,1-800-680-7289. They will share the information.
- Consider requesting a credit freeze on your credit file by contacting each of the three companies. This makes it less likely an identity thief can open new accounts in your name. The freeze will remain in place until you request that it be lifted.
- If you find any illicit activity on your credit report, contact the credit bureau and ask that it be removed. You can provide the police report, if necessary. If you know which accounts have been affected, contact the relevant businesses and talk to someone in the fraud department.
- Close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened without your consent.
- Apply for a “V” endorsement on your driver’s license, or your ID card if you don’t drive. This will show law-enforcement officers that you are a victim of identity theft in case a background check on you pulls up crimes that were committed in your name. It’s part of the state’s “Identity Theft Passport” program, says Medley, who successfully pushed for its creation in the Legislature in 2009.
Under the program, your name is entered into a state ID theft database, which is accessible only to law enforcement and the state’s Motor Vehicle Division. You’ll need to fill out an “ID Theft Affidavit” that you can get at consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0014-identity-theft. It will ask for information about you and the theft and will also ask for a copy of the police report you filed. Sign the affidavit, have it notarized and take it to the police station in the jurisdiction where you filed your original complaint. You can get the “V” endorsement by going to an MVD station and asking for a manager, who will check the database before issuing you the new ID.
- File a complaint with the FTC by going to consumer.gov/idtheft or by calling 1-877-ID-THEFT.
Sound sobering? It is, because identity theft is a complicated, time-consuming crime to deal with.
However, if it happens to you, you’ll probably be best off if you adopt Medley’s philosophy: “I have decided … that I am not going to live my life paranoid. I’m just going to be more careful and more aware of my surroundings.”
Ellen Marks is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-823-3842 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.