ChoicePoint, a clearinghouse for consumer information, has admitted it was tricked by a ring of identity thieves into revealing the profiles of as many as 145,000 people last fall. What do you do if you find out your identity might have been stolen?
Paperwork—lots of paperwork. ChoicePoint plans to send notification letters to everyone whose information was leaked. If you get a letter, you should call in to one of the three major credit bureaus that keep track of your credit rating—Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion. Any of the three will allow you to place a fraud alert on all of your credit reports.
The fraud alert, which lasts for 90 days, instructs (but doesn’t compel) creditors to contact you at a specified phone number before processing any credit request. Setting up a fraud alert can be done through an automated phone system, so an identity thief who already has your name, address, and Social Security number could put a fraud alert on your credit report before you do—and give his or her own phone number for confirmation. This would likely draw unwanted scrutiny to the thief, though.
Once your alert is in place, each of the three bureaus will send you a letter offering a free copy of your credit report (in accordance with the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003). If someone is using your identity to obtain credit, you would see it on these reports, either in the form of credit cards that don’t belong to you, or credit inquiries from businesses you don’t recognize.
If you are indeed a victim, you’ll need to go to a local police station with your evidence and obtain a police report. (Depending on local rules, you may need to go to a police station located near the scene of the crime, which could be anywhere.) Then you can send a copy of this police report to each of the three major credit bureaus, along with a written request to extend your fraud alert for 7 years. In some states you can freeze your credit information, so no one can look at it or extend credit in your name. For a fee, you can temporarily lift the freeze, and legitimate requests will go through.
Then, you’ll still have to erase the thief’s footprints from your record. This involves sending multiple letters to each of the credit bureaus, as well as to each of the creditors involved. You won’t be liable for anything the thief buys in your name, but your credit rating will reflect unpaid bills for cards that don’t belong to you.
Maybe you’re not yet a victim: There’s no reason for an identity thief to use your information immediately, or even within the 90-day span of a fraud alert. You can renew the 90-day period indefinitely, or you can opt to obtain free copies of your credit report from each bureau every year. (For now, these free reports are only available in certain states, but by next year everyone will be eligible.) Identity theft experts suggest staggering your requests to the three bureaus so that you receive a free credit report every 4 months. If you need to pay for a report, it should cost at most $9.50.
Once your personal information has been stolen, there’s no good way to get it back. You just hope the thief will move on to easier targets who haven’t done the same paperwork you have. Changing your Social Security number is possible, but very difficult and probably not too helpful. The Social Security Administration “cannot guarantee that a new number will solve your problem.” Indeed, you might lose access to your own records, or run into problems for having no credit history at all.
Explainer thanks Beth Givens of Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and Evan Hendricks, author of Credit Scores & Credit Reports.