What to do if you become a victim of identity theft

In early September 2017, Equifax reported it was the victim of a massive cyberattack that stole personal information from millions of people in the U.S., Canada and a number of other countries. The hack took information that included names, addresses, Social Security/Social Insurance Numbers and in some cases, credit card numbers.

The Equifax theft is just the latest example of how your personal information could be compromised. Thieves can use this information in a number of nefarious ways, including:

  • accessing your bank accounts to steal your funds
  • opening new bank accounts to hide illegal transactions
  • applying for loans, credit cards and other services
  • making purchases
  • hiding criminal activities
  • obtaining passports or other government benefits

So… what can you do if your information is stolen?

While incidents of full-blown identity theft are low, it’s important to be proactive to minimize your risk of being a victim of identity theft.

Here are some important steps to take to minimize risks and protect your finances.

  1. Notify your local police about the identity theft by filing a report. This will give you documentation in the event a fraud is committed using your identity in the future.
  2. Contact your bank, credit card provider and any other financial institution to make them aware of the theft. They can place an alert on your file to keep an eye out for suspicious transactions.
  3. Contact credit reporting agencies to put an alert on your file. This will make it harder for anyone to open a new account in your name. However, you may have to do this every 90 days. You can also get a free credit report once a year.
  4. Notify federal anti-fraud agencies, like the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s IdentityTheft.gov, or the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. Be sure to provide your police report number. The FTC site includes a working plan on which steps you should follow

How to dispute a fraudulent charge due to identity theft

If you’ve discovered your information has been used to open, say, a credit card account you must close the fraudulent accounts. Contact the business’ fraud department and explain that you are a victim of identity theft. They may require a copy of your police or identity theft report, or require you to fill out a dispute form. Once that’s done, request a letter stating:

  • The account was not yours.
  • You are not liable for it.
  • They have removed it from your credit report.

Be sure to keep this letter for future use, for example, if the fraudulent account reappears on your credit report.

How to reduce your risk of becoming an identity theft victim

There are a number of things you can do to minimize the risk of becoming an identity theft victim.

  • Buy a shredder and use it. Destroy receipts, credit offers, account statements, expired credit cards and other documents that contain personal information that you don’t need to keep.
  • Monitor your bank and credit card accounts at least monthly to stay on top of unauthorized activity.
  • Be aware of “phishing” schemes, where thieves attempt to compel you to reveal personal information (like your birth date, social security/social insurance number or credit card number) either in person, by mail or online.
  • Keep your social security/social insurance number secure. Don’t keep it in your wallet, don’t write it down. Only share it when it is absolutely necessary.
  • Install a firewall and anti-virus software on your home computer to prevent data theft.
  • Use complex and unique passwords on any financial websites to avoid hacks. Change the password if that business reports any database breaches.
  • Pay attention to your billing cycle. If bills or financial statements are late, contact the company or service.
  • Check your credit rating once a year (which can be done for free), and look for any unauthorized accounts.

Nobody wants to have their identity compromised. It can lead to years of explanations and fights with financial institutions to avoid liability or damage to your credit rating.

By following the above tips you can help minimize the risk of being a victim and be prepared to take action in the case of suspected identity theft.

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