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SYI: Save your Identity

The warning signs can start innocently enough that you don't even recognize them as being warning signs of impending doom. Perhaps it's a letter from your credit card company about a credit application. It might be a call from your bank inquiring about your application for a line of credit. Do not be fooled into thinking these are innocent mistakes. Large financial companies do not make innocent mistakes anymore when it comes to your credit.
As soon as these things start occurring, recognize them for what they might very well be telling you. You have been the victim of identity theft and the thief is attempting to purchase goods and services, running up large bills and debts only to leave you to pay the cost of the party.
Identity theft is unfortunately all too common, being listed as the # 1 consumer complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Nearly seven million people were victimized in 2003, representing an 80% increase over the previous year. Even worse, only a small portion of the thieves are ever prosecuted, even when the police are certain they know who the thief is. The reason for that is because most cases require that a witness see the suspect filling out a credit application or signing to receive goods in the victims' name.
What can you do when the first signs of identity theft start trickling into your mail box or answering machine? Here are 5 actions you can do in an attempt to minimize the impact the theft will leave on your own good name.
Step 1: Damage Control.
You have to start doing Damage Control at the very first sign that you might have been the victim of identity theft. As soon as you receive notice about credit applications you know you have not inquired about, notify the local police and file a report that you believe your identity has been stolen. If your purse was lost or stolen, you should have done this immediately. Get that report on file because it is important to have documentation if there is to be even a small chance your impersonator will be prosecuted.
After the police report, you need to contact the three major credit reporting agencies (CRAs) and the Federal Trade Commission. The box below gives you the necessary information.

Federal Trade Commission
(877) ID-THEFT

TransUnion - Fraud Victim Assistance
POB 6970
Fullerton, CA 92834
(800)-680-7289
www.transunion.com

Equifax - Consumer Fraud Division
POB 740256
Atlanta, GA 30374
(800) 525-6285
www.equifax.com

Experian - Consumer Assistance
POB 2002
Allen, TX 75013
(888) 397-3742
www.experian.com

By contacting them about the false credit applications being made in your name, you will activate fraud alerts on your credit file. This is supposed to prompt lenders to inform you of any new requests for credit, giving you a chance to explain it was an identity thief, not you. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it does not and the credit company goes ahead and gives the thief credit in your name.
You should check your credit reports from each of the three bureaus to look for items that are not of your doing. Even if there is no fraud evident, you will want to be watching your report at least every other month for the next six months. If you see signs of unusual activity, or the fraud alerts work and you begin to receive calls from lenders, contact the lenders and credit extenders and explain it wasn't you. If the impersonator visited them in person, ask them for a description. Then move onto:

Step 2: Understand that Reality Bites.
After you receive the second notice of someone seeking credit in your name, or see any unusual activity on your report you need to:
A.Re-contact the police about this theft
B.Call the CRAs again to renew your fraud alerts which can expire in 90 days.
C.Request copies of your report from each of the CRAs. A fraud alert is supposed to notify all three to send you a report without cost, but make three separate requests to make sure you quickly receive each CRA report. If need be, hound them until they hand over what by law they are required to provide you because of your fraud alert.

Step 3: Get Busy.
Statistically, recovering from identity theft can take more than 600 hours of effort on your part to clear your name. Much of that time will likely be spent in that never-never land of a company's telephone-hold pattern listening to their music selection. Another big chunk of time will be spent explaining and correcting, re-explaining and re-correcting and maybe needing to go over for a third time matters you had though corrected or already explained.
For every action you take, you must keep a precise log of action, the details are highly important.


Just as it was important for you to notify the police immediately upon recognizing you were facing identity theft, you must deal with all the companies that think you owe them money as soon as you are aware of them.
Using a spreadsheet chart with headings like "Company", "Date", "Representative", "Time Spent", and "Response" will help you keep track of whom you talk to, about what and when you spoke. Good record keeping is vital. Whenever you write, send the letter certified mail, and staple the confirmation receipt with your other records.
Another advantage of the certified letter is the time stamp. Credit reporting agencies are required to respond within 30 days - it's the law. That time stamp on the envelope, and the fact the CRA signed for the letter improves your chance of a quick response. You need to take as much control of the situation as possible.
One important part of this step is to take care of yourself, do a weekend getaway once in a while if you want. The thing is to recognize that a sense of helplessness and loss of control is common when going through an identity theft situation. Deal with the feelings when they occur, take a break from the ordinary routine as needed, try to relax on occasion and not let the situation run away with you.
Creditors are likely to start hounding you, demanding payment for goods you never bought. Your assertive actions, such as placing the fraud alerts with the CRAs, reporting to the police, and keeping track of all contacts with creditors will help you clear your name. It will also help you prove to the creditors that you do not owe them the money your impersonator stole from them.

Step 4: Fix what's broken.
Be diligent in your activity. Do not let the blockheadedness of credit company representatives get you down; the burden of proof is on you to show that you did not order those goods. Keep calling, emailing, and sending certified letters repeatedly until you get all the false information removed from your credit report.
If this happens to you, always identify yourself as a victim of identity theft and supply the company with a notarized ID Theft Affidavit available at www.ftc.gov. Becoming a criminal reporter will help as you piece together what the thief has done by asking as many questions as you can.

Step 5: Recovery.
Does anyone truly recover from an ID theft experience?
Looking at your credit report from the three bureaus at least once a year is important for everybody to do. For a victim of ID theft, it is imperative. Starting December 1, a nationwide system of fraud detection and alerts will create procedural standards CRAs must follow when a consumer reports an incident of identity theft. By September 2005 everyone will be able to request a free credit report once a year.
In the event that you are ever the victim of identity theft, by being proactive you may be able to shorten the duration of your recovery. If you are fortunate enough to live in California or Texas, state law allows identity theft victims to freeze their credit reports. This means a bank or creditor has to request permission via a PIN number from you.
Credit report attorneys warn against failing to stay vigilant, though. The danger is that negative data can return to your credit report, so do not assume that once fixed, the problem will stay fixed for good. Keep checking your credit reports at least once a year just to make the past problems do not return to haunt you in the future.
Fighting to clear your name takes time, effort, and expense on your part. The good news, though, is that you can get all the fraudulent accounts closed, the black marks removed from your credit report, and resume some semblance of normalcy in your life. There is no guarantee that these actions will work, that depends on your persistence and good fortune. However, not taking these steps will guarantee you many years of misery, excessive interest rates, denied credit and mental anguish.

Roger Sorensen is a Financial Literacy Speaker and Author - his book "You Don't Own Money" is available online at Amazon.com. He is the editor of BrighterFutures.Com and publisher of Money Basics - The Newsletter. His work is copyright protected material, so if you copy, print, and reproduce, etc., please give proper credit.

About the Author

Roger Sorensen is a Financial Author and Speaker, and the editor of Money Basics, a monthly personal finance newsletter found online at www.brighterfutures.com. After filling in his own debt pit equal to 150% of his annual income, Roger has turned the experiance into Brighter Futures, a Financial Literacy company. "There is hope for you, no matter how large your debt load might be."

 

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