In the wake of the Equifax data breach, which compromised the personal information of up to 143 million Americans — nearly half of the U.S. population, according to NBC News — many Americans are looking to prevent potential identity theft. The Equifax breach is just the latest in a string of data breaches that occurred in 2017, including May’s Gmail breach and July’s Verizon breach, which each affected millions of consumers.
If you believe you are at risk for identity theft — meaning your personal information can be used to open credit cards, bank accounts, obtain drivers licenses and more — there are steps you can take to find out if you have been affected, and what to do if you have. Find out how to check your credit report, report identity theft and fraudulent charges, and freeze your credit if you’re a victim of identity theft.
How to Check Your Credit Report
Your credit report is a summary of your financial behavior that is compiled by the three nationwide credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Knowing how to read a credit report — and spot errors — is crucial to your finances. Your credit history is the key to unlocking many major financial milestones, such as buying a car, owning a home, or even landing a job. Checking your credit report allows you to ensure that all the information listed is correct and up-to-date. You can obtain a free credit report by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com, which is authorized by the federal government and allows you to obtain one free copy from each of the three credit bureaus every 12 months.
You can also obtain your credit report online for $1 using GoFreeCredit.com. Checking your credit report allows you to ensure all your information listed is correct and up-to-date. If you notice an error on the report — such as accounts that don’t belong to you or an incorrect payment status — you can dispute the errors. If you suspect that the errors are due to identity theft, you should report the theft immediately.
How to Report Identity Theft
If you think your identity has been compromised, there are several ways to report identity theft:
1. File a Police Report
Reporting your identity theft to the police can protect you from having to deal with fixing your credit later on. To do so, you will need a few things:
Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft Affidavit
Government-issued ID with a photo
Proof of your address — such as mortgage statement, rental agreement or utility bill
Other proof you have of the theft, such as bills or IRS notices
2. File a Report with Your Bank, Credit Union or Credit Card Company
If your bank account or credit card has been accessed, contact your bank immediately to freeze your account and cancel debit or credit cards. If accounts have been opened in your name at other financial institutions, contact each directly to close the fraudulent accounts.
3. File a Report With the FTC
You can file a report with the Federal Trade Commission online or by phone, which will be used to create an affidavit to provide to your creditors and the police.
4. Alert the Credit Bureaus
Issuing a fraud report to one of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — reduces the risk of more accounts being opened in your name.
How to Dispute a Credit Report Error
In addition to reporting identity theft, you should dispute errors on your credit report to prevent permanent damage to your credit score, which can prevent you from being approved for credit cards, loans, mortgages and insurance. First, contact the three major credit bureaus via mail, an online form or by calling customer service.
Next, notify your creditors, which includes all credit card companies and other lenders you have used, which provide your credit history to the reporting bureaus. Send copies of any supporting documents to your creditors and credit reporting companies along with your letter of dispute. Because of the sensitive information, it’s best to send all letters and documents via certified mail. Retain receipts from the post office for your records.
How to Dispute Credit Fraud
If you notice specific fraudulent charges on any of your credit cards, you should report those immediately as well. The sooner you report these charges, the less liability you will have and the less time your credit card thief will have to make additional charges. To report and dispute credit fraud, there are four steps you should take.
1. Contact the Credit Card Issuer
Many credit cards list a number on the back to report fraudulent charges. Be prepared to provide your credit card number, social security number, and account login information.
2. Contact the Credit Bureaus
Fraudulent charges can negatively affect your credit score. Report credit card fraud to all three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The credit bureaus will place a credit fraud alert on your account, which can help prevent a thief from opening more accounts in your name.
A fraud alert will notify lenders to take extra precautions when granting a line of credit in your name. You can opt for an initial 90-day security alert, which will end after the three-month period, or an extended security alert, which lasts longer and also requires lenders to verify your identity via phone before establishing any new lines of credit. For the extended alert, a police report or identity theft victim statement is usually required. Here’s how to set a fraud alert for each of the major credit bureaus:
Equifax Fraud Alert: To file an initial 90-day fraud alert with Equifax, you will need to fill out an online form that asks for your name, address, social security number and contact information. To request an extended fraud alert, you will need to submit a police or other law enforcement agency report or a U.S. Postal Service report, as well as proof of identity along with a form available online.
Experian Fraud Alert: You can file an initial 90-day fraud alert with Experian using their online form. An extended fraud alert requires you to mail in a victim statement as well as documents of proof.
TransUnion Fraud Alert: To place an initial fraud alert with TransUnion, you will need to create an online account and fill out the appropriate form. You will need proof of identity to file. For an extended fraud alert, you will need to mail in a request, along with proof of identity, two proofs of address and a copy of the identity theft report.
3. File a Police Report
Fraudulent charges are a form of identity theft and should be reported to your local law enforcement agency.
4. File a Complaint with the FTC
Be prepared to provide the FTC with details of the theft, as well as your personal information.
How to Freeze Credit — and Unfreeze It
If you are the victim of identity theft, one option to protect yourself and your credit is to freeze your credit. Freezing your credit is a way to prevent identity thieves from being able to use your personal information to apply for new credit cards, loans and other financial services. When your credit is frozen, it prevents your credit score from being obtained — a necessary step in most major monetary transactions. To freeze your credit, contact one of the three major credit bureaus. Each has a different process and fees, so select the option that is best for you.
Equifax Credit Freeze
The simplest way to freeze your credit with Equifax is through an online form. You will need to fill out your complete name and address, social security number and date of birth, and submit a payment if applicable. Fees do vary by state, but many offer the service free to identity theft victims, with most other fees ranging from $5 to $10. If you are the victim of identity theft, submit a police report or other appropriate document as well as your request to Equifax in the mail in order to be eligible for any benefits associated with identity theft victims.
After you have frozen your credit, you will need to unfreeze it to be able to open a new credit account or to allow others to access your credit score to apply for loans and other financial transactions. The same online form is used to temporarily or permanently remove the security freeze. Similar fees apply.
Experian Credit Freeze
Experian’s credit freeze services are free for victims of identity theft. The fees for all others vary from state to state, with most fees ranging from $5 to $10. You can apply online with your name, address, date of birth and social security number, or you can mail in a report or file an online complaint form.
To unfreeze credit with Experian, fill out an online form with your personal information, and select the dates you would like the unfreeze to be active for. You can choose to temporarily or permanently lift the freeze. Small fees may apply.
TransUnion Credit Freeze
TransUnion allows consumers to initiate or lift a credit freeze online, by phone or by mail. Both services are free for victims of identity theft, and for all others a small fee applies that varies by state applies. To manage your credit freeze online, you will need to create an account with TransUnion. In order to have the fees waived, you must provide TransUnion with a copy of a law enforcement report alleging identity theft that has been filed with your local law enforcement department or the Department of Motor Vehicles.