It's no understatement to say that identity theft is a problem. In 2018, approximately 14.4 million people in the U.S. were victims of identity theft, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
While everyone is at risk, service members are twice as likely to be targeted. Deployed service members often have limited access to their banking and credit card accounts and may go weeks without checking them. This provides ample time for fraud to go unnoticed.
The use of Social Security numbers also puts service members at risk for identity theft. Although Social Security numbers are no longer used on mailing labels and prescription medicine bottles, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs still uses them as a primary means of identification for veterans and active duty service members. And in 2015, a cyberattack left many military members vulnerable after the personal records of millions of federal employees were stolen.
There are several proactive measures you can take to prevent identity theft, but do you know what to do if it happens to you? Using recommendations from the Federal Trade Commission and insight from USAA Advice Director Matthew Angel, we created a 10-step identity theft guide to help you navigate your way back to financial security if you do become a victim.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself in advance. The first one? Paying attention to anything out of the ordinary. But even that doesn’t make you exempt!
“Even if you're on top of things, it can happen to you,” Angel says. His advice is to watch for red flags: receiving a denial for credit you didn’t apply for, a welcome notice from an account you didn’t open or if you stop receiving regular correspondence from your current bank or credit company, because fraudsters have taken over your accounts and changed the address.
Additional preventive measures that members can elect include choosing to opt out of the Consumer Credit Reporting Industry list in order to stop unsolicited credit card and pre-approved applications from bombarding their mailbox and potentially getting into the wrong hands.
Immediately After ID Theft is Discovered
- Report your identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission by filling out this form or calling 877-438-4338. You'll then receive a personalized Identity Theft Report and recovery plan. The report is proof you’ve been a victim of identity theft and gives you certain rights under the Fraud Victim Bill of Rights. For example, you have the right to ask businesses not to report information about you to credit bureaus if the information is due to identity theft.
- Contact the company or companies associated with the fraudulent charges. Let the company’s fraud department know you’ve had your identity stolen and you’ve reported it to the Federal Trade Commission. Ask for the accounts in your name to be closed or frozen and for bogus charges to be reversed. Also ask for a letter confirming that you notified the company that the fraudulent activity isn’t yours, you aren’t liable and it was removed from your credit report. Be sure to file the letter somewhere safe for future reference, and don’t forget to change all login credentials associated with your account including passwords and PINs.
- In addition, call all other non-affected financial institutions you do business with and notify them of your recent identity theft. Ask them about their credit and fraud protection options. It’s also recommended that you change all login credentials associated with these accounts as well.
- Notify either Experian, Equifax or TransUnion of the fraud and get a free credit report. This will activate a free 90-day fraud alert making it harder for anyone to open an account in your name. Note that it's not necessary to contact all three credit bureaus as each is required to notify the other two. Shortly after, you should receive a letter from each credit bureau confirming they've placed a fraud alert on your account.
After you’ve taken action to stop the initial impact of identity theft, you can start to take care of the after-shock damage.
- Correct your credit report of fraudulent accounts or bogus charges by blocking this information. Blocking refers to your right to have fraudulent data removed from your credit report so companies can't collect these debts from you going forward. To block fraudulent accounts or bogus charges, write to one of the three credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian or TransUnion -- and explain which information is incorrect and ask them to block it. In your letter include your name, address and Social Security number as proof of your own identity.
- You may also add an extended fraud alert or credit freeze to your file. An extended fraud alert lasts for 7 years and a credit freeze remains until you remove it. Both can help prevent further misuse of your information. You can elect one or both options with the credit bureaus mentioned above.
Depending on the severity of your fraud case, you may need to take the following additional steps:
- If you suspect your Social Security number is being misused, report it to the Social Security Administration. You can report a lost or stolen card and get a free replacement or review your Social Security work history if you suspect someone is wrongfully using your card number for employment purposes.
- Stop debt collectors from trying to collect debts you don’t owe. Send a letter to any collection agencies within 30 days of receiving a collection notice. Let the collector know your identity was stolen and you aren’t responsible for the debt. Follow up by sending copies of your Identity Theft Report. Don’t forget to document who you talked to and ask them to stop reporting your debt to credit bureaus.
- Replace your driver's license, passport or Social Security card. You can apply to get a replacement if your Social Security card is lost or stolen. If your passport is lost or stolen call the State Department at 877-487-2778. And visit the nearest DMV branch to report a lost or stolen driver’s license.
- Clear your name of criminal charges by contacting the proper authorities. Was someone arrested for using your personal information? Contact the law enforcement agency that made the arrest and ask to file a report. You'll need to provide information proving your identity including photographs and fingerprints. In return, ask the law enforcement agency to change all fraudulent records to the arrested felon’s. Obtain a letter or certificate releasing you from criminal liability. Also, consider contacting your state attorney general to get an identity theft passport and carry it with you as a primary means of identity verification.
By taking the above action steps, you can begin to reverse the immediate and long-term effects of identity theft.
Safety guidelines are not intended to be all inclusive, but are provided for your consideration. Please use your own judgment to determine what safety features/procedures should be used in each unique situation.
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