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Don’t Panic: Five Steps to Take if You’re the Victim of Identity Theft

Every day, especially during tax season, the average American runs a slight, though considerable, risk of identity theft. Just think about how much of your personal information travels out into cyberspace every day from your computer, smartphone, tablet, e-reader and essentially any device with Internet access. Most organizations tout the security of their platforms, but too often they have shown to be inferior. Instead of crossing your fingers that you don’t end up like the unlucky few, the most practical way to approach the risk of identity theft is to prepare for it.

1. Set up a fraud alert

Many financial institutions systematically flag accounts with suspicious activity, but you can set more personalized parameters to reduce the likelihood of identity theft. There are three major national credit bureaus that you can contact: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Each bureau has its own fraud hotline for emergency cases. You can also set up alerts through independent companies. For example, LifeLock provides services such as fraud alerts, cancellation and replacement of lost information, and widespread searches for unauthorized use.

2. Order a credit report

After setting up a fraud alert, you can order a free credit report from all three of the national credit bureaus. Request that the agency blacks out all but the last four digits of your Social Security number. If you see any unauthorized transactions from a bank statement or a more easily accessible report, contact the fraud departments of the businesses involved. Once you receive your credit report, you’ll also need to scour for abnormal activity and report it.

3. File an identity theft report

Among other relevant documents, you will need to submit a formal identity theft report with every dispute you make regarding unauthorized use of your personal information. You will need to submit a report first. Once completed, it will be called an Identity Theft Affidavit. You’ll need to have a copy of this affidavit with you when filing a police report. Obtain your own copy of the police report, attach it to your Identity Theft Affidavit and you have a complete Identity Theft Report.

4. Request physical documents of fraudulent activities

When opening a new account or applying for a driver’s license, you will often need to bring several forms of identification, such as a Social Security card, a birth certificate and utility bills. Since many institutions make copies of these documents for their own records, request to have them sent to you, since they could provide further evidence to support your case. Even something as simple as a signature on a retail receipt could clear your name.

5. Keep detailed records

Identity theft can sometimes be difficult to prove, and some institutions may be more demanding than others. To make the process less of a headache, be sure to keep detailed records of everything. I mean everything: copies of letters mailed, times phone calls were made and received, a breakdown of your activities on the day your identity was stolen and so on. If you have to check this information in retrospect, contact your phone company for records of your calls and text messages, so you can sort through the facts and make a solid case in your favor.