Recently, of all people, I was a victim of identity theft. That’s right, me, a bankruptcy and consumer protection attorney was a victim of identity theft. My experience has motivated me to share what happened and how I handled it. Approximately 9 million Americans are victims of identity theft every year. Considering how often it happens, it is important to be ready and on guard if it happens to you.
One recent morning, I received a call on my cell phone from a toll-free number I did not recognize. Normally, I assume these calls are spam or robo calls so I do not answer them. Fortunately, on this occasion, I answered the phone. Sure enough, it was a call from Capital One’s Fraud Department. They asked me if “I applied for a credit card with them”. I told them I did not, and they advised me based upon that, the application in my name would be declined and that someone attempted to open an account fraudulently in my name. It is crazy to fathom that someone can obtain your date of birth, address, social security number and possibly even your cell phone number to open up a credit account. Ironically, I did recall seeing a text from Capital One regarding a credit application but I assumed it was spam and deleted it. The representative from Capital One did not share much information regarding the application but gave me the toll-free number for the credit bureau Equifax to place a fraud alert on my account and the link to annualcreditreport.com
Shortly thereafter, I called the number provided for Equifax and using automated prompts I was able to place a fraud alert on my credit report. Conveniently, when you place a fraud alert with one credit bureau, that bureau is required to notify the two others for them to place the fraud alert on their reports as well. Later on, I received postcards from all three credit bureaus stating that a fraud alert was placed on my credit report and that it will remain on my reports for 12 months.
After doing some additional due diligence, I used the link provided by Capital One: https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action. This website enabled me to obtain my credit report from all 3 credit agencies for free. Other than them trying to sell me additional products I didn’t need, I was also able to quickly download the reports on my computer. Once downloaded, I reviewed them all to look for newly opened accounts. Luckily, I noticed there were a few new inquiries from applications, but no new accounts were opened. If an account was opened, then I would have considered placing a credit freeze on my account. However, that would have to be done with each bureau individually, which could be time consuming. Although it provides security, it would also be inconvenient if I wanted to apply for credit and purchase something in the future by requiring me to unfreeze my account.
Approximately, a week after this incident took place, I received multiple letters from other banks regarding applications for new credit cards. Most of the applications were actually denied because of the number of new inquiries on my account at the same time. (Although, it could have also been from the fraud alert I placed with the credit bureaus.) To make sure that my credit reports remain accurate, I sent letters to the various banks and the three credit bureaus notifying them that I never applied for the cards and that I was a victim of identity theft. I am also going to pull my credit report again soon, to make sure it is accurate. Going even further, I am going to practice what I preach, I am going to obtain my credit reports once a year through annualcreditreport.com and review them for accuracy.
Based upon my own knowledge and experience, I was quickly able to successfully manage my personal encounter with identity theft. I then thought to myself how will the typical person be able to handle this. Accordingly, I wanted to share my experience on how to best handle identity theft incidents. Upon doing some research, I also realized that the banks involved and the credit bureaus were not being so helpful because they were just consumer friendly or cared about me. They were required to provide such advice and take such actions under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (commonly referred to as the FCRA). In fact, if they didn’t take such actions, they could potentially expose themselves to financial damages. Below please find the following information and guidance if you think you were the victim of identity theft.
Identity Theft Overview
Identity theft is becoming increasingly bigger issue for many Americans. This is especially the case because wrongdoers can apply for credit in someone else’s name quickly and easily online. Once identity thieves have your personal information, they may be able to open up new accounts in your name, transfer money out of your bank account, buy goods and services on your credit cards, or get medical treatment on your health insurance. An identity thief can even file a tax refund in your name and steal your refund.
You should always be wary of giving out for social security number. Identity thieves can often socially engineer their way into convincing you to give them that crucial piece of private information through either email phishing, phony websites or phone scams. In light of this, confirm you are on the proper, legitimate website when conducting online banking or applying for credit online. Alternatively, if your information was leaked in a data breach, criminals may simply be able to buy it on the dark web.
Here are some clues that someone may have stolen your personal information:
- You receive a fraud alert from a financial institution.
- You find unfamiliar accounts on your credit report.
- You find unfamiliar charges on your credit card bills.
- Debt collectors call you regarding debts that are not yours.
- You stop getting your bills or other mail.
- You see withdrawals from your bank account that you cannot explain.
- Merchants refuse your checks.
- You get mail regarding new accounts or declined applications for credit you didn’t apply for
- The IRS notifies you that more than one tax return was filed in your name, or that you have income from an employer you do not work for.
- You get notice that your information was compromised by a data breach at a company where you do business or have an account.
Your Rights Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (15 U.S.C. § 1681) is a federal law that was passed by Congress in 1970 to promote the accuracy, fairness, and privacy of information in the files of consumer reporting agencies. This legislation also has protections and rights for victims of identity theft.
The Right To Place A Freeze On Your Credit
Victims of identity theft have the right to place a credit freeze on their credit reports, which will restrict almost all access to access your credit report. The only cumbersome result is that you cannot open a new credit account while the freeze is in place, nor can anyone else. However, you can temporarily lift the credit freeze if you need to apply for new credit. While the freeze is in place, you will still be able to do things like apply for a job, rent an apartment, or buy insurance without lifting or removing it. A credit freeze stays on your credit report until you remove it. To place a credit freeze on your credit report, you will need to contact each of the three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion (see below for contact information).
The Right To Place A Fraud Alert
As an alternative to a credit freeze, identity theft victims have the right to place a fraud alert on their credit file at no cost. A fraud alert makes it harder for an identity thief to open a new credit account in your name, and anyone who suspects fraud can place a fraud alert on their credit report. Financial institutions are required to take additional steps to verify your identity before they issue new credit in your name when a fraud alert is in place. Additionally, when you place a fraud alert on your credit report, you can get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus. An initial fraud alert lasts for one year. If you are a victim of identity theft, you are entitled to an extended fraud alert, which is a fraud alert lasting 7 years.
To place a fraud alert, you only need to contact any one of the three credit bureaus (see below for contact information). The credit bureau that you contact must then tell the other two bureaus to place a fraud alert on your credit report. You will then receive a postcard notification from each credit bureau confirming that the fraud alert is in place.
The Right To Dispute Inaccurate Information
Consumers have the right to dispute incomplete or inaccurate information on their credit reports. If you identify incomplete or inaccurate information on your credit report and dispute it with the credit bureau that is reporting it, the agency must investigate unless your dispute is frivolous. The credit bureaus must then correct or delete any incomplete or inaccurate information within 45 days. However, if the information is verified as accurate in their investigation, they may continue to report it.
The Right To A Free Credit Report From Each Credit Bureau Every Year
The FCRA allows you to receive a free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each credit reporting bureau. This will help you ensure that all of the information on all of your credit reports is both accurate and up to date. The website the credit bureaus set up to allow consumers to exercise this right is: https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action
The Right To Financial Compensation
You have the right to seek damages from the credit bureaus if they violate the FCRA. You may be able to bring a lawsuit to seek the following damages:
- Actual damages. There is no limit to this amount, provided that you can prove the loss.
- Statutory damages. These damages range between $100 and $1,000. Consumers can take advantage of statutory damages even without proving that the violation caused you harm.
- Punitive damages, with no limit on how much. Punitive damages are decided by the court overseeing the proceeding.
- Attorney’s fees and costs.
Steps To Take If You Are a Victim of Identity Theft
If you suspect that you are a victim of identity theft, there are a number of steps you should take.
- First, add a fraud alert to your credit report. This will make it more difficult for identity thieves to create new accounts in your name. All you have to do is contact one credit agency to do this.
- Obtain your credit reports and review them to see if any new accounts were opened up in your name. Make note of any account or inquiry you do not recognize. As mentioned above, the website you can use to obtain free credit reports from each bureau is as follows: https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action
- If new accounts were opened in your name, you may want to place a credit freeze on your credit reports. This has to be done with each credit agency individually.
- Write letters to the company that created or inquired about a new account and explain that you were a victim of identity theft and dispute any inaccuracies on your credit reports. Make sure that you send a copy of the letter to each credit reporting agency (see below). You should even write a letter if an application was not approved. Declined credit accounts can possibly negatively affect your credit score.
- If you identify an error on your credit report, you should file a dispute with the credit reporting bureau that is reporting it. You should explain exactly what information you think is incorrect on your report and include copies of any documents that support your dispute. If you have a problem with disputing errors on your credit report, you can also submit a complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at this website: https://www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint/
- After 30 days, you should re-pull your credit report and continue to monitor it, and if necessary extend the fraud alert.
- If you continue to have issues with your credit, you may want to create an FTC Identity Theft Report. Based on the information you enter, the FTC website IdentityTheft.gov will create an Identity Theft Report and recovery plan for you. The identitytheft.gov website link you can use to report identity theft is as follows: https://www.identitytheft.gov/#/assistant
Contacting the Credit Bureaus
Below please find the contact information for each of the three credit bureaus. We have included a phone number, website and fraud alert link and physical address for each.
- Website: http://www.equifax.com/
- Fraud Alert Page: https://www.equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services/
- Phone: (800) 685-1111
- Equifax Consumer Fraud Division
- PO Box 740256, Atlanta, GA 30374
- Website: https://www.experian.com/
- Fraud Alert Page: https://www.experian.com/fraud/center.html
- Phone: (888) 397-3742
- P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013
- Website: https://www.transunion.com/
- Fraud Alert Page: https://www.transunion.com/fraud-alerts
- Phone: (888) 909-8872
- TransUnion Fraud Victim Assistance Department
- P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016
Contact The Law Offices of David I. Pankin, P.C.
If you were a victim of identity theft and have questions on what to do or think you had your rights violated under the FCRA, please contact the Law Offices of David I. Pankin at (888) 529-9600 or by using our easy online contact form.