Editor's Note: This article is a guest contribution by Chhaya Néné
In 2017, my identity was stolen. At that time, despite many Google searches, I could not find a guide on dealing with identity theft. Today, you’ll find many resources outlining the steps to take when your identity is stolen, but few acknowledge the devastating emotional toll this experience can have on your life.
By sharing my story, I hope to help you find solace and guidance through these actionable tips.
Someone Filed a Tax Return in my Name
In 2017, upon returning from a family vacation, I came home to a letter from the IRS. I thought my tax return had finally arrived.
Unfortunately, the words “Identity Theft Claim” were the only thing I saw. But I had never filed a claim. Confused, I read the rest of the letter. There was going to be an investigation into tax related identity fraud.
Five years later, I’m still dealing with the impact identity theft had on my life.
How Identity Theft Impacted My Life
That letter from the IRS started a chain of events that would take months to sort out.
I called the IRS and informed them that I had not filed a claim. To verify my identity, they required two years’ worth of tax returns and information about my income, family, employment history, birthplace, and birth year.
I felt like I was on trial for something I didn’t do. Panic, guilt, fear, and helplessness set in.
My brain began to race with thoughts. “What did I do wrong? What information do they have access to? Did they get my tax refund? Does that mean I won’t get one?”
There was a long pause on the phone, and then, the next gut-punch.
The IRS representative informed me that someone had filed a return in my name—prior to the one I had filed.
The identity thief created a direct deposit account without a name and changed my address to an old address so I wouldn’t receive letters from the IRS informing me that the fraud had occurred.
Despite flagging it as a fraudulent account, the IRS still deposited the money there. It was only when I filed my return that they realized fraud had occurred.
The IRS representative told me I would have to take the following actions:
- File a 3911 form, which allows the IRS to trace a refund and see who received it.
- Send a copy of the identity theft letter I received.
- And complete an 8822 form, which informs the IRS of a change of address.
Additionally, I was told that every year moving forward, I’d receive a unique identification number in order to file my taxes.
I got off the phone feeling overwhelmed. And the work was far from done.
Next, I checked my credit cards to ensure someone hadn’t gotten that information, and fortunately, there were no unauthorized charges. Still, I called all my banks, let them know what had happened, and asked to be immediately informed of any suspicious charges. I also requested the ability to approve and review all charges through push notifications.
I proceeded to contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Social Security Administration (SSA), and Experian (one of three main credit bureaus in the United States). The FTC gave me a personal recovery plan for identity theft, while the SSA issued an alert to ensure no one else was using my identity. Experian set up alerts to notify me if anyone tried to open a credit card or apply for a loan in my name.
The last two calls I made were to the FBI to file a report and the post office, requesting that they hold my mail to ensure nothing would be stolen.
Over the next five years, I received notices from Experian, doctors’ offices, and employment offices, each to inform me they had been hacked and that my personal information had been stolen. Although it felt like there was nothing more I could do to protect myself, there were additional precautions I took—and continue to take—to minimize the risk of becoming a victim of identity theft again.
How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft
- Never give your personal information via phone or email, especially your Social Security number (SSN).
- Don’t write your SSN down anywhere unless it is required.
- Change your passwords regularly and make them difficult to guess.
- Be careful which websites you visit. Some have malware that will track your personal information.
- Set up two-factor authentication for everything.
- Don’t save your passwords on your computer. (Use a password manager like Aura instead).
- Ask for your personal information to be shredded in front of you at any office that no longer requires it.
Since having my identity stolen, I’ve written about my experience on numerous occasions. This led to incoming calls and emails from strangers who have gone through similar experiences and could relate to the outrage and hopelessness that I did. Regardless of how individual cases varied in magnitude and severity, all were familiar with the devastating emotional toll identity theft can have on your life.
I’ve found that it helps to think of identity theft as a scar. You can dwell on how painful the experience was, or, by taking the proper measures to protect yourself, you can allow that pain to fade over time into something manageable. Let that scar serve as a reminder of a time you dealt with something incredibly difficult and were able to move forward and learn from it.