Is a Criminal Using Your Identity? Act Quickly!
As the VP of commercial lending at a San Antonio bank, Carlos was no stranger to protecting financial information. So it came as a major shock when a stranger used Carlos’ stolen personal information to apply for 40 new credit accounts (and successfully open four), rent an apartment, and buy a sports car — all in his name [*].
Most victims of identity theft don’t catch up with the fraudsters until it’s too late. A 2022 report from the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) found that [*]:
“More than half of all current identity theft cases are unresolved — up from 37% in 2021.”
If you think or know that you’ve been the victim of identity theft, you need to act quickly.
In this guide, we’ll cover how to tell if someone has stolen your identity, what to do to regain control of your accounts and finances, and how to protect yourself from fraudsters in the future.
How To Tell If Someone Is Using Your Identity
Identity thieves only need a few pieces of your personally identifiable information (PII) to commit fraud in your name — such as your Social Security number (SSN), login credentials, or driver’s license.
Unfortunately, it’s easier than ever for criminals to access your PII. Thieves can target you with phishing emails, hack your online accounts, steal your sensitive documents, or simply buy your information on the Dark Web after a data breach for as little as a few dollars [*].
With so many potential vulnerabilities, it’s not always easy to tell when your identity has been stolen.
If you see any of these red flags, you can assume that your identity is compromised:
- Unfamiliar charges on your bank account or credit card. More than one in three Americans have fallen victim to credit card fraud [*]. If you see unfamiliar charges on your statements — even small ones — don't ignore them. Thieves usually test purchases with smaller amounts before trying to max out the credit lines.
- Unexpected mail, emails, or notifications about new accounts or loans. Identity theft is all about financial gain. If you get unexpected letters about credit approvals or calls from debt collectors, that’s a major red flag.
- A sudden drop in credit score. Most people don't regularly check their credit reports. But if a lender surprisingly denies you a loan for a new car or you see a drop in your credit score, these could be signs that your identity is stolen.
- Alerts about data breaches or notifications that your personal information is circulating on the Dark Web. If you get an email about a recent hack, your personal data may be at risk. Check if your passwords have been leaked by using Aura’s free Dark Web scanner.
- Your online account passwords don’t work anymore. If you’re usually signed in automatically to accounts but are suddenly locked out, it's possible that someone might have hacked your account.
- Signs that someone is using your Social Security number. Fraudsters can use stolen SSNs to create synthetic identities, get unemployment benefits, and access medical care — all in your name. Never ignore suspicious activity involving your SSN, as it’s the most vital part of your identity.
- Notices from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) about taxes you didn’t file. If you get a W-2 from a company you never worked for, someone might have filed a fraudulent tax return on your behalf. You can visit the official IRS website to check your tax return status.
What To Do If Your Identity Is Stolen: 11 Steps To Avoid Financial Ruin
- Contact your insurance provider to get help
- Freeze your credit with the three major credit bureaus
- Check your credit reports for fraudulent activity
- File an official identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
- Report the crime to your local law enforcement agency (if applicable)
- Notify your bank and credit card issuer
- Secure your online accounts with new passwords and 2FA
- Contact any impacted vendors and government agencies
- Scan your devices for malware, and set up antivirus protection
- Obtain information from debt collectors under the FCRA
- Take extra security measures for special types of identity theft
If you spot any warning signs of identity theft, it’s crucial to take action. The sooner you respond, the better chance you have of stopping fraudsters from ruining your financial reputation.
Here are 11 actionable steps to take if you think your identity has been stolen:
1. Contact your insurance provider to get help
Identity theft is a complex, time-consuming process to investigate. With reliable insurance, you have more protection and support to recover from the crime.
The first thing you should do is contact your identity theft insurance provider to see what coverage is available. The best identity theft protection services offer 24/7 support from Fraud Resolution Specialists who can walk you through the steps to recover from identity theft.
Here’s what to do:
- If you have identity theft insurance: Call your provider and explain that you suspect your identity has been stolen. They’ll walk you through the recovery steps and can even facilitate three-way calls between you and your bank, government agencies, or impacted companies.
- If you think you might be covered under your home insurance policy or through work benefits: Some employers offer identity theft protection as a benefit. If you haven’t personally taken out an insurance policy, check with your home insurer and employer to see if either provides coverage.
2. Freeze your credit with all three credit bureaus
Once fraudsters have your PII, they can open new lines of credit. The best way to protect yourself against credit card fraud or loan fraud is to freeze your credit with each of the three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. This measure will stop anyone from using your identity to open new accounts or obtain loans.
How to contact each of the three major credit reporting agencies:
You’ll need to contact each credit bureau separately and provide proof of your identity to initiate the freeze. The bureau will provide you with a PIN that allows you to freeze and later“thaw” your credit file with them.
3. Check your credit reports for fraudulent activity
It’s important to document everything — as detailed records of any suspicious activity will help authorities investigate, and also support your claims for chargebacks so you can clear your name with the bureaus and impacted vendors.
Here’s what to do:
- Get your free credit reports from each of the three bureaus at AnnualCreditReport.com. Check them for fraudulent transactions or unfamiliar accounts, hard inquiries, and new or inaccurate information.
- Contact the bureaus to report your findings, and request that they investigate all disputed items on your report.
💡 Related: How To Write a Credit Dispute Letter (Free Template) →
4. File an official identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
The FTC helps victims of identity theft recover from the financial repercussions. An official FTC Identity Theft Affidavit can help you prove your innocence and dispute fraudulent charges or accounts.
Here’s what to do:
- Visit IdentityTheft.gov and file an Identity Theft Affidavit. Include as many details as possible about the suspected fraud.
- The FTC will provide you with a personal recovery plan to secure your identity and protect you from further scams.
5. Report the crime to your local law enforcement agency (if applicable)
In some cases, you may also want to contact your local police department and report the crime — for example, if you know the fraudster or have information that could lead to an arrest.
Here’s what to do:
- Contact your local police department’s non-emergency line and ask to talk to someone in charge of fraud resolution.
- Provide all of your evidence, including a copy of your credit report, FTC Identity Theft Report, bank statements, and any other supporting documents.
- Stay calm but persistent during the interview. Document everything you discuss with the police, and set a time to follow up.
6. Notify your bank and credit card issuer
Even if scammers haven’t accessed your bank account, you’ll want to contact your financial institution’s fraud department and inform them that you could be at risk. They’ll most likely cancel your accounts, credit, and debit cards, and issue you new ones.
Here’s what to do:
Contact your bank or card issuer and tell them that you may be a target of identity fraud. Check for a phone number on the back of your credit card. If your credit card was stolen or lost, here's how to contact most major credit card companies in the U.S.:
- Visa: 1-800-847-2911
- Mastercard: 1-800-627-8372 (1-800-MASTERCARD)
- Chase: 1-800-432-3117
- Capital One: 1-800-227-4825 (1-800-CAPITAL)
- Citibank: 1-800-950-5114
- Bank of America: 1-800-732-9194
- Discover: 1-800-347-2683 (1-800-DISCOVER)
- American Express: 1-800-528-4800
You can also block your cards if you’re unsure if they’ve been compromised. If you are sure, cancel the cards, and order new ones to be sent to a secure address.
💡 Related: What Can Scammers Do With Your Bank Account Number? →
7. Secure your online accounts with new passwords and two-factor authentication (2FA)
Most modern identity thieves want access to your online accounts — email, banking, social media, etc. If you reuse passwords or have had accounts breached, you need to secure them in order to limit the damage.
Here’s what to do:
- Create unique and long passwords for all of your accounts. In 81% of data breaches, hackers broke into accounts using stolen passwords that people had reused [*].
- Store your passwords by using a secure password manager. Aura’s password manager can warn you if your passwords were leaked or are too weak, and you can even update certain accounts with a single click.
- Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) and use an authenticator app to add an extra layer of security when accessing your accounts.
8. Contact any impacted vendors and government agencies
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) grants all consumers the right to dispute inaccurate information in their credit reports [*]. After reviewing your credit reports, contact all third parties that may have been impacted by any fraudulent activity.
Here’s what to do:
Make a list of any impacted companies or agencies. For example, include any credit card company to which fraudsters applied for new accounts — or the Social Security Administration (SSA) if the thieves applied for benefits in your name.
Provide your FTC report and any other supporting documents, and then ask for a letter that confirms:
- The account isn't yours and wasn't opened by you.
- You’re not liable for purchases made on the account.
- They've removed the fraudulent charges.
- The fraudulent account and charges have been removed from your credit report.
9. Scan your devices for malware, and set up antivirus protection
Hackers use malicious programs to infiltrate your devices and online accounts, scan for private information, and steal money. You can use reliable antivirus software to protect against existing vulnerabilities and detect new cybersecurity attacks.
Here’s what to do:
- Install antivirus software and run regular scans to identify and isolate malware, ransomware, and trojans before they become a problem.
- Always scan external drives like USBs before you open any files. This precautionary step might save your laptop from a virus: Simply right-click the drive icon and select Scan.
- Keep all software up to date with the latest security patches that the software provider releases. Make sure to only download patches directly from the provider.
10. Obtain information from debt collectors under the FCRA
If debt collectors are calling or harassing you about fraudulent debts, you have rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). Explain what happened and ask debt collectors for all information about debts incurred due to identity theft.
Here’s what to do:
- Lodge a request with the debt collection agency to send you all information related to debts in your name.
- Notify the companies of the suspected fraud, and provide evidence in the form of your FTC report and police report (if you have one).
- Contact the three credit bureaus if the debt collectors have already reported the debt. The bureaus can block reporting of any damaging information related to fraud — so potential lenders won’t see it if they pull your credit report.
11. Take extra security measures for special types of identity theft
Identity theft can take many forms. Depending on the severity of the crime, you may need to take additional precautions.
Here’s what to do depending on the type of identity theft you’ve encountered:
- Criminal identity theft is when fraudsters provide police with a stolen ID or someone else's personal information during a criminal investigation. If an identity thief gives your name after being stopped for a traffic infraction, you’ll need to contact both your local police department and the department in the municipality where the crime was committed.
- Child identity theft is when someone fraudulently uses the identity of a minor for financial gain. For example, a thief could use your child's SSN to apply for a credit card and then destroy your child's credit score. If your children are under 17, you can freeze their credit and dispute fraudulent accounts on their behalf.
- Medical identity theft is when someone uses stolen health insurance information to make fraudulent medical claims or access medical services, equipment, or prescription drugs. If you’re a victim, contact your health insurance company immediately and work with its fraud department.
- Student loan fraud is a scam in which perpetrators call victims with offers of lower monthly payments or the opportunity to consolidate loans. If you’ve been a victim, you’ll want to inform the Federal Student Aid services and also change your password.
- Fake check fraud is a con in which scammers send fraudulent checks and then ask you to deposit the money and transfer it elsewhere. Inevitably, the check will bounce, leaving you with debt. If you unknowingly deposit a fake check, contact your bank immediately and try to stop payment.
- Government benefits fraud occurs when someone uses your PII to falsely claim unemployment aid and other state benefits. Report the crime to the state unemployment agency located where the crime was committed. You can find a list of state unemployment offices here.
- Investment account fraud is any scam in which fraudsters seek to trick victims into making large investments. The investment could be a real estate or business venture, or take place on a cryptocurrency platform. Follow these steps if you’ve been scammed out of money.
- Employment identity theft is when an impersonator uses your details — like your name, date of birth, address, and SSN — when applying for jobs. Left unchecked, this crime could compromise your Social Security benefits and leave you with a higher tax bill. Report this crime to the Department of Labor and then contact the SSA to correct your earnings record.
- Tax identity theft includes a few variations in which criminals try to steal your tax benefits. Sometimes, scammers impersonate IRS agents to trick you into sharing personal information. The IRS has an online resource that can help you deal with tax identity fraud.
- Ghosting is a type of fraud that occurs when someone collects personal information of recently deceased people. The fraudsters can open new accounts and max out credit lines before the death is recorded with government agencies. You can request a “deceased alert” with the credit bureaus to warn you if someone is trying to open new accounts in your deceased family member’s name.
- Social Security number theft is one of the most serious types of fraud, as criminals can use stolen SSNs to open bank accounts, make loan applications, and seek government benefits. Follow our guide on what to do if someone has your SSN.
How Long Does It Take To Recover From Identity Theft?
Dealing with identity theft is a stressful and often complicated process.
While much of the financial damage of identity theft can be mitigated by your bank or credit card company’s fraud protection department, dealing with identity theft can still cost you tens of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs.
Last year alone [*]:
Almost one third of identity theft victims lost over $10,000.
Even worse, it can take over six months and 100–200 hours of your time to discover, resolve, and recover from the effects of identity theft [*].
Here are some of the worst consequences of identity theft that will impact how long it takes to recover:
- Scammers could access your bank account or open new accounts in your name. Many modern scams skirt fraud protection — such as through scamming tactics via payment apps like Zelle, Cash App, or Venmo.
- You could lose access to your health care benefits. Protected Health Information (PHI), like your Medicare number and health insurance information, goes for over $1,000 on the Dark Web [*].
- Damaged credit score. As criminals leave you with bills and unpaid credit cards, your reputation with the credit bureaus could plummet. A poor credit score may prevent you from getting a loan, mortgage, or even a job.
- Deed fraud. Also known as home title theft, this scam occurs when con artists forge documents or trick vulnerable people into signing over their property titles.
- Tax fraud. Scammers can use your stolen identity information to access fraudulent benefits on your behalf. When you try to file your own legitimate return, it will be flagged. Not only will you lose money, but you could also be in trouble with the IRS.
💡 Related: The Top 10 LifeLock Alternatives in 2023 →
How To Protect Yourself Against Identity Theft
Being proactive is the best way to protect yourself and your family against identity theft. Here are nine ways to keep your sensitive data and finances safe from scammers:
1. Create strong passwords (and use a password manager)
Weak or reused passwords are among the top causes of data breaches and hacks. Use a strong, unique, and long password for every account, and store each one by using a secure password manager.
2. Remove personal information from the internet
Your social media posts, online profiles, and publicly available information can be used by criminals to target you. Reduce your digital footprint by closing old accounts and adjusting your privacy settings on all platforms and devices.
3. Familiarize yourself with the signs of phishing scams
Look out for suspicious emails or text messages from unknown senders — especially ones claiming to be from legitimate companies or government organizations. Become familiar with the warning signs of phishing messages — such as typos, suspicious links, or QR codes.
4. Always use a VPN (especially on public Wi-Fi)
A virtual private network (VPN) encrypts your data and location, making it impossible for hackers to understand your browsing activity. Switch on your VPN whenever you use public Wi-Fi or when shopping or banking online in airports, cafes, and hotels.
5. Review your credit reports and bank statements
Stay one step ahead of scammers by getting in the habit of reviewing your financial activity. Conduct a full review of your bank apps and statements at least once per month, and keep a close eye on your credit reports. If you notice any inaccuracies or unfamiliar transactions, report them immediately.
6. Shred or store sensitive mail
Dumpster diving may not be the most high-tech strategy, but it’s an effective way for people to steal from you. Make sure to shred any bank statements, loan offers, and health insurance information before throwing them out.
7. Protect your valuable documents
Store your passport, birth certificate, and Social Security card in a secure and locked safe. Also, avoid carrying more cards than you need in your wallet — it only takes a moment for fraudsters to pounce.
8. Initiate a preemptive credit lock or credit freeze
If you have any concerns about personal data exposure, placing a credit freeze is a good idea. Parents can also use this step to protect their kids against child identity theft. Aura also lets you instantly lock and unlock your Experian credit file with a single tap.
9. Consider signing up for identity theft protection with credit monitoring
Aura monitors critical aspects of your identity, including your family’s credit card accounts and SSNs. If a fraudster uses your SSN to open a new bank account in your name, you’ll l receive near real-time fraud alerts — which helps you act quickly to limit the damage.
Shut Out Identity Thieves Before They Can Do Real Damage
When you know what to do if your identity is stolen, you can act fast to minimize the damage and recover quickly. Staying vigilant is vital if you already know that a fraudster has you in their crosshairs.
An identity theft protection solution is the best way to safeguard yourself and your entire family from cybercriminals and con artists. Aura combines award-winning identity theft protection with 24/7 credit monitoring, powerful antivirus software, and a VPN to keep you safe.
If disaster strikes, Aura’s U.S.-based team of White Glove Fraud Resolution Specialists will walk you through each necessary step to secure your identity and restore your credit. Plus, every Aura plan member is covered by a $1,000,000 insurance policy for eligible losses.