It’s important to be familiar with all aspects of identity theft, from the ways in which the crime is committed to methods of prevention and steps to help recover if the unthinkable does happen.  This is the exact reason we started Identity Theft Aid, to help give you, the consumer, free tools and resources to learn about and protect yourself from identity theft.  No matter what precautions you take, there’s no absolute guarantee that you won’t become a victim, but by understanding how the crime occurs, you will be better prepared to keep your sensitive information secure and out of the hands of the thieves who will stop at nothing to steal it from you.

We’ve compiled a list of  the more frequently asked questions we receive at ITA.org.  If you have any comments or questions at all regarding identity theft, credit fraud, credit monitoring, identity theft protection etc., please feel free to contact us and we will be glad to help.

What is identity theft?

Identity theft a crime in which an individual’s personal identifying information is stolen and used to fraudulently obtain loans, credit cards, make purchases, steal money from existing accounts without the knowledge of the victim.  Sometimes identity theft can go on for months or years without the victim becoming aware.

How will I know if I’ve been a victim of identity theft?

It’s fairly easy to spot fraudulent activity on your credit reports.  If you notice any new credit card accounts, auto loans, mortgages or any other accounts that you know that you did not personally open, then it’s very likely that someone has stolen some of your personal information and opening unauthorized accounts in your name.  If you also notice credit inquiries from lenders you did not submit applications to, this is another possible sign of id theft.

How to the criminals get my information?

There are a number of ways that identity thieves can get your personal information such as social security number, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, address, date of birth, etc.  These criminals will send you phishing emails asking for account numbers.  They will call your phone and lure you into giving them sensitive information.  They will even dig through your trash cans looking for credit card numbers or any other information they can use.  All they need is your social security number, your birth date and together with a fake drivers license, they can start opening accounts in your name and take over your entire identity.

Should I cancel my credit cards and get a new social security number if I’ve been a victim?

This is generally a bad idea on both counts.  If you’ve been a victim, your credit is most likely not very good, so it’s possible that you may have a difficult time getting another card.  Keep your cards open and work with the card companies to get rid of the fraudulent purchases.  You’re also better off not getting a new SSN.  You’ve had that number your entire life and it’s attached to many accounts and documents.  It will be more work for you to change all of that information than it will be for you to clean up your credit under your existing number.

What should I do first if I discover my identity has been stolen?

The first thing you should do is place a fraud alert with the credit bureaus.  This makes it more difficult for the thief to continue opening accounts and doing more damage to your credit.  You should then obtain your credit reports from all 3 bureaus and inspect them for more fraudulent activity.  Contact any businesses or accounts that you suspect fraud occurred and let them know you believe you have been a victim of identity theft.  Then report the theft to the FTC and get your Identity Theft Affidavit, from which you can file an official police report.   This will help stop the fraud from continuing and get you set up to start fixing the damage that was done by the theft.

What can I do to prevent becoming a victim of identity theft?

There are actually some very simple things you can put in place to help prevent becoming a victim.  Some of these include never giving out your social security number unless you’re absolutely certain you know the party or business.  Never give out personal information via email.  Even if it appears to be a trusted company you do business with often, it may be a phishing attempt by an identity thief.  Use strong passwords on all of your online accounts.  Change them often and never reuse passwords.  Shred any documents you no longer need which might contain account numbers or any other sensitive information.  Purchase a locking mail box.  ID thieves will steal mail straight from your mail box and use it to commit fraud.

Do I need to monitor my own credit reports?

The short answer is yes. At a bare minimum, you should be obtaining copies of your credit report every 6 months, but every 2-3 months is an even better plan.  A lot of damage can be done by an identity thief in less than one month, let alone 6 months or more.  You are entitled to a free credit report annually at www.annualcreditreport.com, but you may need to sign up for a credit report service if you are planning on checking it more frequently.  TransUnion, one of the 3 credit reporting bureaus, offers monthly credit reports for a small fee.  They’re a company that we trust and so can you.  You can visit their site here if you need to get a copy of your credit report quickly. 

What is identity theft protection?

Identity theft protection generally refers to services provided by id theft or credit monitoring companies that keep track of your credit reports and alert you if any fraudulent activity is spotted.  These companies use automated software programs that can detect unusual activity and then automatically alert you if the activity is determined to be a valid id theft threat.  Some companies such as Identity Guard and LifeLock have additional safeguards in place to help prevent you from becoming a victim of identity theft, as well as alerting you if fraud is detected on your accounts.  These services range in cost from a few dollars per month, up to $30 month depending on the level of protection.  You can read more about id theft protection services here.