Question: Someone took out credit in my name. What should I do?
Answer: Identity theft is a serious crime and can wreak havoc on your financial standing. There are specific actions you should take if your identity is stolen.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, your first step is placing a fraud alert with one of the three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian or TransUnion. Call one of the credit bureaus and tell them you are a victim of identity theft and need to place a fraud alert on your credit file. Confirm that the credit bureau will contact the other two companies to place fraud alerts as well. The fraud alert will remain on your credit file for 90 days. After 90 days, you can renew it.
You also may want to consider placing a credit freeze on your credit file. A credit freeze means potential creditors cannot get access to your credit file, making it impossible for anyone to open an account, including you, in your name. You can request the freeze to be lifted temporarily or permanently. You will need to contact each of the credit bureaus to place the freeze on your file and also make a note of how long the freeze will stay in effect.
Next you want to obtain copies of your credit report from each of the bureaus. As a victim of identity theft, you are entitled to free reports from each of the bureaus, beyond the free one you can receive annually. Contact, in writing, the creditors of the accounts open in your name and let them know you did not open the account. Send letters via certified mail with a receipt to maintain a record of your correspondence.
Finally, you'll need to create an identity theft report. This will help you ultimately have the fraudulent accounts removed from your record. First you'll need to obtain a complaint form from the Federal Trade Commission. The forms are available online at www.ftc.gov/complaint or by calling toll free 1-877-438-4338. Hold onto the complaint reference number you receive.
Next, take your identity theft report to your local police department and file a police report. If possible, obtain a copy of the filed police report.
Once this process is complete, begin the process of disputing incorrect information on your credit report by contacting the credit bureaus in writing about any fraudulent information.
Protecting your personal information is crucial when it comes to preventing identity theft. Never keep your Social Security card or any family member's Social Security card in your wallet. If your wallet or purse is stolen, providing the thief access to your Social Security number provides access to your identity.
Consumers who own a smartphone may be at more of a risk for identity theft. The FTC found that 7 percent of smartphone owners were a victim of identity fraud, and a recent study found that only 57 percent of iPhone apps encrypt the data collected. If you use a smartphone, make sure you update to the new operating system when it becomes available. Also, set a password on your home screen, so if your phone is lost or stolen, your personal information is not readily accessible. Avoid saving any type of login information on the phone.
Keeping personal information secure and safely disposing of old documents can help prevent identity theft. Shred all documents containing any type of personal information. Also, physically destroy flash drives containing personal information and wipe out the hard drives of old computers before disposing or donating them. Wipe data from old cell phones by performing a factory reset.
Taking extra steps to keep your personal information secure will save you from the task of cleaning up your credit if your identity is ever stolen.
Heather Murray is manager of education and resource development for Advantage Credit Counseling Service (dba Consumer Credit Counseling Service). For more information about the agency's services, please visit www.advantageccs.org or to access the free online budgeting tool go to www.onlinebudgetadvisor.com. If you have money or credit management questions, you can email Ms. Murray at email@example.com. Please provide your name, address and daytime telephone number with all inquiries. Ms. Murray tries to reply to all inquiries but, because of the volume of questions she receives, she cannot always respond. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM