If you have become a victim of identity theft, it probably wouldn't surprise you to learn that this crime is becoming more prevalent. However, the fact that identity theft often involves mail fraud, which is a federal offense, means that strong federal sentencing guidelines are being applied to perpetrators of identity theft, along with increased attention from local law enforcement and the Attorney general's office.

And yet, the Social Security Administration disclosed in a recent New York Times report that they have registered 30,000 complaints of Social Security number misuse for 1999 alone. That figure is nearly three times as high as the total of 11,000 such complaints for 1998. The trouble is that identity theft is often only an element in larger financial crimes, and many thieves have become adept at covering their tracks.

What identity thieves count on is that you won't find out about the theft until they have opened a number of fraudulent accounts, or a loan, using your name and Social Security number. Identity thieves will sometimes continue to make the minimum payments on fraudulent accounts to keep them open long enough to obtain as many goods and cash advances as they can before letting them slip into delinquency. You might not even hear about any of these accounts until you get a call from a collection agency.

If an identity thief is using your Social Security number, you should take action as soon as you suspect foul play. Do you know what to do first?

Notify the Credit Reporting Companies
When you believe that identity theft has occurred, either as a result of checking your credit report or being contacted by an account issuer, there are three things you'll want to do immediately. The first is to contact the fraud departments of the three major credit reporting companies, Equifax®, Experian®, and Trans Union®. Tell them you are a victim of identity theft, and ask them to:

  • Place a fraud alert on your credit file, which should prevent any further credit from being granted without your approval.

  • Ask for a copy of your credit report from each of three CRAs, and check for additional fraudulent accounts, unauthorized charges, or inquiries you don't recognize.

Placing a fraud alert on your credit report will prompt creditors to contact you for authorization before opening any new accounts. This course of action will also require creditors to obtain your permission when processing pre-approved credit card applications, which may have been intercepted and sent in by an identity thief. You can also opt-out of pre-approved credit card offers by calling the credit bureaus at 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888 567-8688), and requesting an opt-out form.

Because different creditors sometimes report to only one or two of the major credit bureaus, you must order your credit report from all three to know exactly how many accounts have been fraudulently opened in your name, and which companies have placed inquiries on your report and why. If you are a victim of identity theft, you are entitled to a free credit report from each of the major CRAs.

Notify Creditors
Make your creditors aware of any identity theft situation immediately to prevent further fraudulent use of your accounts. It would be a good idea to keep records of dates and times, and the names and titles of persons you spoke to. If you aren't satisfied with the response you're getting from a creditor, ask to speak to a supervisor.

To see your credit report, visit Experian, the preferred credit report provider for AutoTrader.com.

© ConsumerInfo.com, Inc. 2008. All rights reserved.

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