For CreditCards.com/Published May 24, 2016
You clicked on a spam link without thinking, you left your laptop for a few minutes at a coffee shop, you use the same password for every account, and you even turned off your pesky firewall protection. You know you’re playing with fire. How will you know when an identity thief has stolen your personal or card info?
Be on the lookout for these 10 warning signs of identity theft, and know what to do if any of these things happens to you:
- Missing money from bank accounts.
You see withdrawals from your bank account that you can’t explain. “Someone else has access to your account,” says John Krebs, the Federal Trade Commission’s identity theft program manager.
What to do: Call your bank, explain the situation and change passwords for the account. You may have to wait to get your money restored to your account while your bank investigates the problem.
- You stop getting mail.
“If you’re not getting your mail, that’s a definite red flag,” says Christine Arevalo, director of fraud solutions at ID Experts in Portland, Oregon. A fraudster has likely redirected your bills and other mail to his or her address.
Post offices are working to prevent this theft by contacting people by text messages, email and U.S. mail to confirm a change of address, Arevalo says. “I just put in a change of address, and all three were utilized,” she says.
What to do: Contact your post office, your credit card company and other billers before payments are past due.
- Collectors calling about debts that aren’t yours.
If debt collectors call you about debts that aren’t yours, someone likely has used your name to borrow money and then not paid it back. If this happens to you, don’t stop at telling the bill collectors to leave you alone, Arevalo says. “That’s a bad idea,” she says.
The FTC’s Fair Debt Collection Practices Act requires third-party debt collectors to send – within five days of contacting a consumer about a debt – a validation notice with the name of the creditor, how much is owed and how to dispute the debt.
What to do: If you think you don’t owe any money, you can send the a verification letter asking for proof, such as a copy of a bill for the amount you owe. You must send the letter within 30 days of the initial contact from the collector. Collection calls and letters must stop until the debt is verified.
Still think the collector has it wrong? You should dispute the debt and file an identity theft report. Also, check your credit reports with the three credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, or via annualcreditreport.com to make sure there are no fraudulent accounts.
- Suspicious charges on your credit cards.
You notice unfamiliar charges on your credit card bill. A fraudster is likely charging in your name — either with a fake card or online with your credit card number.
What to do: Contact your credit card issuer, tell your creditor about the bogus charges, and ask to get them removed. Then check your credit reports to make sure there are no accounts you didn’t open.
- Bogus accounts in your credit history.
You notice unfamiliar accounts on your credit report. You likely are a victim of account takeover or identity theft.
What to do: Contact each credit bureau, and tell them which accounts on your credit report are fraudulent. You can find a sample letter from the FTC here. Report the ID theft to the FTC. You can also place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your accounts.
- A bill from an unfamiliar doctor.
You received a bill from a medical provider you never heard of for a procedure you never had. That’s a strong sign of medical ID theft. Other warning signs: Your health plan rejects your legitimate medical claims because records show you’ve reached your benefits limit. Or, a health plan won’t cover you because your medical records show a condition you don’t have.
|If you’re not getting your mail, that’s a definite red flag.|
|— Christine Arevalo
What to do: Contact each doctor, pharmacy, laboratory and health plan where the thief may have used your information and tell them about the issue. Contact your employer in case the fraudster is being treated for conditions that would cause you to lose your job
- Your government benefits are maxed out.
If you get a notice that government benefits such as unemployment, food assistance or other services are maxed out or denied and it doesn’t add up, someone may have assumed your identity to collect benefits, Arevalo says.
What to do: Report the crime to the relevant government agency and to the police. Check your credit reports to make sure there are no bogus accounts in your name.
- Arrest warrants for crimes you didn’t commit.
You get stopped for a minor traffic offense and the officer tells you there are outstanding warrants against you for crimes you didn’t commit. Or you are unable to renew your driver’s license because of traffic offenses that aren’t yours. Or you may get a notice for a parking ticket in a city you weren’t in at the time. You may have been hacked by a fraudster who is committing crimes, traffic offenses and/or parking violations in your name.
What to do: Contact the police and the district attorney to report this crime, says Steven Weisman, author of the scamicide.com blog. You’ll have to confirm your identity via photographs and fingerprints. Get a letter from the district attorney’s office explaining that you are a victim of criminal identity theft and that you did not commit the crimes done in your name, Weisman says.
- You receive a data breach notice.
If you get a notice that your information was compromised by a data breach at a retailer, health insurer or other entity, your identity theft risk level just went up.
What to do: Check your credit and sign up for whatever free credit monitoring service is offered in response to the data breach. Most of these services take additional steps that are difficult for the average consumer. “Most will also search the dark Web to see if your information is being sold,” Krebs says.
- Tax refund check arrives before you file.
If a tax refund check arrives before you file your return, that’s an obvious sign that someone has filed a fraudulent return in your name, says Rod Griffin, director of public education at Experian. This actually happened to Griffin. Other signs of tax fraud: You receive an IRS notice that someone used your Social Security number to get a tax refund, or the IRS notifies you that more than one return was filed in your name.
What to do: Contact the IRS and complete Form 14039 Identity Theft Affidavit, notify law enforcement and file an identity theft report with the FTC. If the notice also says you were paid by an employer you didn’t work for, contact that employer and explain that a fraudster stole your identity.
What did Griffin do? “I used Experian’s website to add an initial security alert to my credit reports, filed a police report and notified the IRS of the fraud,” he says. “They then issued a fraud protection number that I had to use when filing my tax return.
Identity theft can happen to anyone. Griffin’s incident had a humorous moment.
“The funny thing is that when I was at the police department I asked the officer if I could have just cashed the check and used it to pay my legitimate taxes. He said, ‘Probably,’” Griffin says. “I, of course, did the responsible, law abiding thing and did not cash the check.”
Four easy ways to increase online security
- Don’t automatically click on links in email. Make a rule that you must stand up and stretch first.
- Guard your computer the same way you’d protect $10,000 in cash. The data on your device could be worth more than that in the hands of a fraudster.
- Change your passwords regularly. Don’t use 1234, your name or birthday.
- Turn that firewall back on. The minor hassles aren’t worth the huge blaze you’ll have to put out if you become a victim of identity theft.
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