In 2016, 26 million consumers age 16 or older were victims of identity theft. Identity theft occurs when one individual impersonates another, misusing their personal information for financial gain.

Asian woman getting help

The fallout from identity theft can be emotionally and financially devastating. However, if you learn that you’ve been a victim of identity theft, the best thing you can do is to remain calm and take immediate action.

This article outlines 10 steps you should take to protect yourself and recover your identity.

1. Know the common signs of identity theft

One of the best ways to protect yourself is to know the common signs of identity theft so you can act right away. When hackers steal your identity, they are working as quickly as possible to use your information before you realize it’s been stolen.

Here are a few warning signs of identity theft to watch out for:

  • You suddenly stop receiving your bills
  • You receive a notice that your account information has been changed
  • There are unexplained charges on your bank account or credit cards
  • You see a sudden dramatic change in your credit score for no reason
  • You receive bills for services you never used

2. Review your credit report and assess the damage

Once you suspect you’ve been a victim of identity theft, you should review your credit report, bank accounts, and any existing credit cards for unusual activity. If you find any fraudulent charges, you’ll want to dispute them right away.

First, make sure you change your login information on all your accounts. Then contact the fraud department at any companies where fraudulent charges took place.

Explain that you’ve been a victim of identity fraud and ask them to either freeze or close the account. You will most likely have to contact these companies again after you’ve received your Identity Theft Report.

You should also contact your utility companies in case hackers tried to open any new accounts in your name.

3. Request an Identity Theft Report from the FTC

The next step will be to request an Identity Theft Report from the FTC. You can do this online or you can call the agency at 1-877-438-4338. Once you’ve done this, the agency will give you your Identity Theft Report and come up with a recovery plan for you.

Your Identity Theft Report is essential because it proves to businesses that your identity has been compromised. It also makes it easier for you to repair any damage to your credit.

You should also file a police report at your local police station. Make sure you bring a copy of your report from the FTC, a government-issued photo ID, and proof of residence. Once you’ve completed this step, be sure to request a copy of the police report.

4. Put a fraud alert on your credit report

As soon as you find out your information has been compromised, you’ll want to put a fraud alert on your account. An initial fraud alert notifies businesses that they need to confirm your identity before approving new credit requests.

This makes it harder for hackers to open up new accounts in your name. You can do this by contacting any of the three major credit bureaus. A fraud alert is free and will remain on your account for 90 days.

However, don’t assume that identity theft can’t happen more than once. Some people have been victims of identity theft multiple times. For that reason, you should consider requesting an extended fraud alert that will remain in place for seven years.

To apply, contact one of the three major credit bureaus and include a copy of your report from the FTC. The credit bureau you contact will notify the other two.

By requesting an extended fraud alert, you’ll be removed from any marketing lists for prescreened credit offers for up to five years. You’ll also receive two free credit reports from each of the three major credit bureaus within 12 months.

5. Consider freezing your credit report

If the extended fraud alert doesn’t feel like quite enough, you might consider freezing your credit report. This will prevent anyone from accessing your credit report and will stay in effect until you choose to have it lifted. However, you won’t be able to apply for any new credit cards or loans in the meantime.

6. Dispute any bogus charges

Now that you have a copy of your Identity Theft Report, you should contact any companies where fraudulent accounts were opened. Most companies offer 24-hour customer service for these types of situations.

When you contact the fraud department, explain that someone stole your identity and ask them to remove the charges from your account. Thanks to the Fair Credit Billing Act, $50 is the most you can be held responsible for it someone makes unauthorized charges on your account.

Most businesses will require you to send a written request along with a copy of your Identity Theft Report. Send it by certified mail so you can prove the company has received it.

Once the charges have been removed, have the company send you a letter verifying this. This will help you if the bogus charges show up on your credit report at a later date.

7. Correct any misinformation on your credit report

As a victim of identity theft, you have the right to remove any false information from your credit report. Once you’ve blocked this information, companies can’t try to collect this debt from you.

To begin this process, you’ll need to send a certified letter to each of the three nationwide credit bureaus. Include a copy of your Identity Theft Report and proof of your identity. Outline in detail each of the fraudulent charges.

You don’t necessarily have to have an Identity Theft Report to dispute these charges. But it could take longer without one and there’s no guarantee the credit bureaus will honor your request.

However, if you have an Identity Theft Report, the credit bureaus are legally required to honor your request.

8. Change your account settings and passwords

To help ensure that this doesn’t happen again, make sure you change all your passwords. Don’t use the same password for all your accounts and don’t choose passwords that are easy to figure out. A strong password will contain a mixture of upper and lowercase letters, symbols, and numbers.

9. Replace any necessary documents

You may need to apply for new identification if yours was compromised or stolen. If you need a new driver’s license number, you can contact your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to request a new one.

You should contact the U.S. State Department about reporting and re-issuing a stolen passport. And you should contact the Social Security Administration if you need to replace a stolen Social Security card.

10. Continue to monitor your credit report

And finally, make sure you stay vigilant going forward to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Request a credit report three times a year and review your bank accounts and credit card statements regularly.

You can also check with your bank to see about putting ongoing security measures in place. For instance, some banks will contact you if you spend more than a certain amount.

Take preventative measures like using strong passwords, shredding documents that contain personal information, and investing in antivirus and firewall software. Staying vigilant is the best way to protect your identity going forward.

See also: Best Identity Theft Protection Services for 2019