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Detecting Identity Theft

Unlike a robbery or burglary, identity theft often occurs without the victim's knowledge. Most identity theft victims only find out after they see strange charges on their credit card statements or apply for a loan.

While prevention is always the best policy, sometimes personal information is exposed through security breaches at banks or companies with which you do business. The point is, identity theft can happen to even the most well-prepared consumers.

The following FAQs will help you detect identity theft and minimize fraudulent activity at the early stages:

What are some common signs of identity theft?

Checking your credit report is the best way to detect fraudulent activity done in your name. Evidence of identity theft typically comes in the form of fraudulent or inaccurate information on your credit report, such as incorrect addresses, name, initials or Social Security number.

Here are some other signs of identity theft:

  • Failing to receive bills or other mail related to your accounts (an identity thief may have taken over your account and changed the billing address).
  • Receiving credit cards for which you did not apply.
  • Unexpectedly being denied credit or being offered less-favorable credit terms than expected.
  • Getting calls from debt collectors or businesses about debts or charges you cannot explain.
  • Strange charges and debts on your accounts that don't make sense or on accounts you didn't open.

How do you know whether your identity has been stolen?

Again, most victims of identity theft unfortunately don't know the crime has occurred until the damage has been done. Assuming you haven't checked your credit report lately, one of the following indicators may be the first sign of identity theft:

  • Bill collection agencies may call or write to you about past due balances for debts you never personally charged.
  • Problems with your credit history, unbeknownst to you, could hold up a car loan or mortgage application.
  • You may receive something in the mail about an apartment you never rented or a job you never had.

What personal information should be monitored on a regular basis?

Your financial statements, especially credit card bills, should be checked closely for irregularities.

Monitoring your credit report is perhaps the best way to get an overview of all credit applied for and maintained in your name. So even if you don't receive suspicious mail or see fraudulent charges on your existing accounts, your credit report will reveal other signs of possible identity theft.

Look for inquiries from companies you didn't contact, accounts you didn't open, debts you can't explain and inaccurate personal information. Check your credit report at least annually and remember that federal law requires the credit reporting agencies to provide consumers with one free report each year.

How do I access my free annual credit report?

The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows for one free report each year.

To get a copy of your credit report, don't contact Equifax, Experian or TransUnion directly, but instead contact the Annual Credit Report Request Service created by these three credit reporting bureaus:

877-322-8228;; Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, Ga. 30348-5281.

Also, federal law entitles consumers to a free credit report if a company denies your credit application or otherwise takes adverse action against you, provided the request is made within 60 days.

Should I pay for a credit monitoring service?

Some commercial, fee-based services promise to monitor your credit reports for suspicious activity and alert you to changes. Not all are created equal and some of them are simply not worth the money. Do your homework and check out the company with the Better Business Bureau or state Attorney General if in doubt to see if they have received any consumer complaints.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified consumer attorney to assist with the hazards and stress accompanying identity theft and online scams.

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