Someone used my personal information to commit fraud. What should I do?
As many as 1 in 10 people in the U.S. are the victims of identity theft each year; 21% of those victims experience multiple incidents in a single year. Common examples include credit card fraud, employment or tax fraud and utilities fraud.
If you find that your credit card number was stolen or your Social Security number was used to file a fraudulent tax return, your first instinct may be to call the police. That instinct isn’t necessarily wrong, but it might not get you the results you want. Identity theft is most certainly a crime, but unlike a burglary or physical assault, it’s much tougher to prove what happened and track down the culprit. And the police often don’t have the training ― or the desire ― to seriously pursue this type of crime.
But why wouldn’t I call the police?
Sometimes you do need to call the police. For example, your bank or credit card issuer may require you to show proof of a police report before they pursue an investigation. If you need that, use a non-emergency number, rather than 911, to make your report.
But as far as finding the perpetrator and resolving the financial and emotional damage of identity theft, the police likely won’t be much help.
“Realistically, don’t expect the police to do anything more than take a report,” said Mark Herschberg, the chief technology officer for cybersecurity firm Averon. “The majority of police are not trained to deal with cybercrime and don’t have the resources to help you, let alone catch the attacker.”
In fact, a study found that over the course of one year, federal authorities arrested just 1 in 700 identity theft suspects. Identity theft simply isn’t as high of a priority as violent crimes. Plus, many perpetrators don’t even live or operate in the United States, and employ increasingly sophisticated methods of stealing data.
On the other hand, about half of reported identity fraud cases are committed by someone the victim knows personally. Children are common targets of identity theft by parents, teachers and other adults with access to their personal information, accounting for about 1 million cases annually. Spouses, siblings and even co-workers are also common culprits of identity theft, which can make for a tricky situation if the police get involved.
What should I do if my identity is stolen?
Herschberg says your first call should be to the credit bureaus, which can immediately place a fraud alert on your credit reports and freeze your credit. A fraud alert lasts 90 days and lets creditors know that someone may be trying to use your information fraudulently, and a credit freeze prevents anyone from opening new accounts in your name until the freeze is lifted.
You should also call your bank, credit card company and other financial providers to let them know the situation.
Next, submit a report to the Federal Trade Commission. You can do so at identitytheft.gov or by calling the toll-free hotline at 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338). The FTC will then create an identity theft report, which proves to businesses that someone stole your identity and guarantees you certain rights. You’ll also be provided with a recovery plan.
If you’re the victim of medical ID theft ― that is, someone uses your personal information to submit fraudulent claims to Medicare or other health insurers ― the FTC recommends that you notify your insurer and medical providers. You should get copies of your medical files and ask to have them corrected. Also consider filing a health-privacy complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services online or by calling 1-800-368-1019.
If you are the victim of tax ID theft, you should contact the IRS.
Where can I go for additional information?
The Identity Theft Council is an organization that helps victims of identity theft find local and in-person support from law enforcement, businesses and volunteers. It also seeks to reduce the incidence of identity theft by improving local awareness and education.
The Identity Theft Resource Center is a nonprofit that supports identity theft victims in resolving their cases. Among the services provided are a toll-free Victim Assistance Call Center that offers no-cost case mitigation and consumer education; free victim assistance throughout the U.S.; and education for consumers, businesses, government agencies and other organizations on best practices for detecting, reducing and mitigating fraud and identity theft.