Editorial note: This post is contributed by Veronica Baxter, a legal assistant working at Mosser Legal, an appeals firm operating in Philadelphia.
If your identity has been stolen and someone has racked up debt in your name, this article will give you the legal steps you must take as well as other actions you can perform to thwart further attempts to defraud you and your creditors.
This information is from the office of noted Philadelphia criminal appeals lawyer Todd Mosser.
Report Identity Theft to the FTC
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides an online mechanism to report identity theft and obtain a credit recovery plan. They will give you an official Identity Theft Report which will help you clear up any problems caused by the theft.
When you click on the link, you will be taken to a questionnaire. Once you’ve answered all of the questions, the program will offer a recovery plan that is personalized to your experience. You will receive advice about how to deal with utilities, your phone accounts, any government benefits you receive, and your banking and lending institutions. You will also be able to access template letters to send to defrauded creditors and lenders as well as to the credit reporting agencies.
Report Identity Theft to the Police
Your Identity Theft Report from the FTC should be enough in most instances to show that you are not responsible for any debt incurred by the identity thief, however, there may be cases where a police report is required.
Bring the following to your local police department:
- a copy of your Identity Theft Report from the FTC;
- the FTC’s “Memo to Law Enforcement” (also at www.identitytheft.gov).
- a government-issued photo ID
- proof of address such as a mortgage statement, rental agreement, or utility bill
- any proof you have of the theft, such as delinquent notices, your credit report, bank statements, etc.
Simply tell the police someone stole your identity and that you need to file a report, and be sure to get a copy of that report for your records.
How to Use the Law to Deal with Debt Collectors When Your Identity Has Been Stolen
If you did not know your identity was stolen before the thief defaults on accounts opened in your name, you might already be in the debt collection stage. Here, your police report and the Identity Theft Report from the FTC can help you. When a collector calls, get an email address, fax number, or address to send this information and be sure to find out to whom it should be addressed.
If debt collectors continue to harass you after you have provided proof of identity theft, you can stop them in their tracks by invoking the FDCPA. The Federal Debt Collection Practices Act protects consumers from abuse by creditors and debt collectors. Under the FDCPA, you can stop unwanted collection calls by disp[uting the debt, asking for proof that you owe the debt, and telling them you are not responsible for the debt and to stop collection efforts.
This should stop dunning letters and phone calls, but if a debt collector persists after you’ve invoked the FDCPA, you have grounds for a federal lawsuit. Debt collectors are strictly bound by the FDCPA, and any communication that violates it is punishable by a sizable mandatory fine.
Other Steps to Take When Your Identity is Stolen
Report the Identity Theft to All Three Credit Bureaus
You can get copies of your credit report from Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax at www.annualcreditreport.com.
First, look for unfamiliar accounts, credit inquiries you didn’t initiate, and in a worst-case scenario, defaults or delinquencies you didn’t cause.
Next, check your personal information carefully. Make sure that your name, address, and Social Security number are correct.
Last, if you find any mistakes or possible fraudulent acts, file a dispute with the credit agency online. This is the process of getting the credit agency to eliminate any information related to the identity theft from your credit report.
Freeze Your Credit
When you visit a credit agency’s website, you have the option of taking the following actions to protect your credit:
- Freeze your credit – this prevents creditor access to your file and prevents the opening of new accounts;
- Set up fraud alerts – this requires creditors to take extra steps to verify the identity of the person requesting credit;
- Lock your credit – this is similar to a freeze but typically charges a monthly fee.
Freezing your credit ensures that no one can open new accounts in your name, and if you need to make your credit history available to a lender in the future, you can unfreeze it for that transaction.
Notify New Accounts/Creditors
If there are new, unfamiliar accounts on any of your three credit reports, call those companies and ask to speak to their fraud department. They should be able to close that account. They may ask you for additional information, such as a filed police report or the Identity Theft Report from the FTC, to close the account.
Find Out Whether Anyone is Using Your Social Security Number
You can get a copy of your Social Security statement at www.ssa.gov/myaccount and determine whether anyone is using your Social Security number. If you find that someone is, contact the SSA’s fraud hotline at 800-269-0271 and report it.
File Your Income Taxes as Soon as Possible
If someone is using your Social Security number fraudulently, they may try to file an income tax return and claim your refund. You can thwart this attempt by filing your own return as soon as the IRS accepts filings. Filing electronically expedites the process.
How to Find Out Whether Your Identity was Stolen
Stolen identities are sometimes the result of synthetic identity fraud. But regardless of how it happens, people whose identity was used to open new accounts or make purchases often report one or more of the following:
- Receiving unfamiliar bills;
- Bills missing in the mail because someone changed the address or enacted mail forwarding;
- Debt collection phone calls from unfamiliar creditors;
- Bank account is inexplicably withdrawn;
- Lines of credit maxed out.
Unfortunately, by the time any of these occur the thief has already done damage to you, your credit, and the companies defrauded. Checking your credit reports periodically may prevent an identity thief from doing much harm.
About the Author:
Veronica Baxter is a legal assistant and blogger living and working in the great city of Philadelphia. She frequently works with Todd Mosser Esq., a busy Pittsburgh criminal appeals lawyer.