No matter how many precautions you take, your time may come when you least expect it: You will be the victim of identity theft. After the initial shock, panic and anger, you must quickly regroup, calm down and figure out how to resolve the problem before it persists.
Yet, the fact is that most people, including accounting professionals and tax pros, don’t know what to do first, let alone take precautions to make sure your ID is secure for the future. Unlike some crime, there is a specific, orderly protocol to follow post-identity theft. It is important that accountants know the process, not only for their own well-being, but to also pass along to their clients.
Here are the steps to take:
Call the Credit Bureau Fraud Department
The first thing to do is to report the crime to one of the three credit bureaus, so that they can put an alert on your file. Not only does this tell businesses to be wary next time you apply for credit, but it also dictates that any creditor, prior to granting new credit, must call you at a number of your choosing.
Have the bureaus place a victim statement on your reports. This is an explanation from you, saying something like: “My identifying information has been used to commit fraud. Please give me a call (give your phone number) to verify all applications.”
While these actions make it more challenging for you to get credit, that is the point! The hassle placed on you should be placed twofold on the thief, making it close to impossible for this to happen again.
One benefit in the process is that one phone call to one of the three credit bureaus takes care of other two. By law, one bureau must report the fraud alert to the other two. The initial alert exists for 90 days, or you can get an extended alert for seven years. The extension is definitely something to consider, but remember that it will be harder for you to get credit. If your situation was minor and easily cleared up, it might be best not to be handicapped for seven years.
Here is the contact information for the three credit fraud departments:
Equifax 800-525-6285 P.O. Box 105069 Atlanta, GA 30398
Experian 888-397-3742 P.O. Box 9532 Allen, TX 75013
TransUnion 800-680-7289 Fraud Victim Assistance Department P.O. Box 6790 Fullerton, CA 92834
After notifying the bureaus, you will get a complimentary copy of each credit report, and are allowed two free reports within a year if you request an extended fraud alert. After they arrive, thoroughly check them, make sure you’re aware of all the fraud that has occurred and correct any mistakes, if applicable.
Shut Down All Compromised Accounts and Documents
Doing this will fix your credit and get you back to normal. Immediately pull the plug on your accounts the thief may have been misusing and any new accounts he or she opened in your name. Include credit card companies and service providers, such as your phone company, Internet provide and utilities. When reopening your accounts, make sure that you have a new account number, protected with a new password. You can ask the creditor to classify your old account in two ways in order to protect your reputation: mark it “closed at the customer’s request,” or “card lost or stolen.” Go with the former, as the latter can make you seem careless, even though it wasn’t your fault.
One comforting thing about misuse of your credit card is that the maximum you will be charged under federal law is $50 per card, and if a thief steals your credit card number but not your card, you owe nothing. However, you must report it right away. Waiting between three and 60 business days can net a fine of up to $500. Also, if you report the loss before the card is actually used by a criminal, then you aren’t responsible for any unauthorized charges. Some banks and card companies offer zero liability, even if the thief has already hit up the Vegas strip with your card, so be wary of that.
Closing your accounts isn’t difficult, but erasing the changes you didn’t make is the challenge. Ask to speak to the fraud department of the bank, retailer or credit card company, and find out which forms you need to fill out to dispute fraudulent charges and accounts.
File a Police Report
Contrary to what you might think, filing a police report is not necessarily to catch a thief, as few are caught or even pursued by police. Rather, a police report is designed to do the following:
- Remove fraud from your credit report: In the process of recovering your ID, you will be met with a lot of skepticism. Companies will demand proof that you really were a victim of ID theft, not just another deadbeat trying to dodge your debts. There’s not a better way to show proof than having a police report on hand. Creditors assume that you wouldn’t go to the trouble of filing one unless you really meant it.
- Protection if the thief wants a passport in your name: Passport agencies check all applicants against a national database to see if any criminal activities or duplicate passports are associated with them. A police report of a stolen identity will flag your name in that database.
- Be prepared before filing the report: Be sure that it lists every instance of fraud that was committed under your identifying information. Ensure that you have a copy of it, so that you can send other copies to creditors. In doing so, it is helpful to include the phone number of the investigating officer.
In the case of most thefts, you won’t know where your identity was stolen. So, where do you file the report? First, start with the local police department. It is typically very difficult, if not impossible, to get them to take you seriously because they simply aren’t interested, especially if all you had stolen were documents that can’t be assigned a value. But, be persistent, explaining that only a police report can stop the theft from continuing or repairing your credit. Provide them copies of any documents you currently have, such as your credit report, debt collection letters or the ID Theft Affidavit.
If the local police still refuse to help, which unfortunately does frequently happen, try the county police. If that goes nowhere, go to the state police. If you try everything and still cannot obtain a copy of the police report, at least get the report number and ask for a letter stating that the report couldn’t be given to you.
Establish Good Records of Everything!
Track everything related to getting your credit restored! Send all letters certified mail, return receipt requested, from your local post office. This establishes a record, and if you want to go a step further, ask the people you speak to for written confirmation of your conversations.
You also want to keep a copy of every letter and form you send, as well as the original of every piece of paper you didn’t generate such as police records, credit reports and letters you receive. Maintain a log of all letters and phone calls, jotting down names of the people you spoke to, their title and phone number.
Follow up all phone calls and in-person conversations in writing. Credit card company employees and law enforcement agency employees deal with hundreds of calls daily, so you will want to give them a reason for you to stick out in their minds.
Finally, in the rare and justified instance that the thief is captured, you may want to keep track of your costs. Doing so will give you the best chance at getting your money back. Eligible expenditures including phone calls, postage, mileage, legal assistance, notarizing, court costs for documentation, time lost from work, organizational and reference materials, and personal assistance like a babysitter or an accountant.
File a Complaint With the FTC
The last order of business is to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which can be done online, or by phone at 1-877-IDTHEFT. While the FTC doesn’t get involved in resolving individual cases, the complaint helps them investigate fraud, and may ignite a law enforcement response.
You can also report the case to the FBI. They likely won’t do anything because they are more concerned with national, larger scale fraud, crime patterns and organized-crime activity. However, it may help them in more comprehensive efforts. Go online to discover the number for the FBI field office in your area, and let them know what happened. You can also report your case online here.
Repelling the Debt Collectors
Even after going through all these steps, debt collectors may still hound you. This is extremely frustrating, but not atypical. These days, debt gets sold from collection agency to collection agency, so the problem can really persist. Whoever buys debt is supposed to check your history, but frequently won’t. They are ready to annoy you with it, but don’t let them. Quickly set them straight, the way you did with the original collector by informing them that you are the victim and don’t actually owe the debt. Be blunt, the way they are, and get them off your back!