All that an identity thief needs to open credit cards in your name is your full name and your Social Security number. Then the thief can make thousands of dollars in fraudulent purchases, leaving you to cope with threatening phone calls from collection agencies and shattered credit scores when the bills are not paid.
If you learn that a credit card has been opened in your name, you are not legally responsible for the fraudulent charges, but you will have to take quick steps to stop this fraud and remove the account from your credit reports. Do the following immediately…
1. Call one of the three major credit-reporting agencies. The one you contact will pass the word to the other two. Report the fraud, and ask to have an initial fraud alert placed on your account. This will force creditors to take additional steps to confirm your identity before issuing credit in your name for the next 90 days.
2. Contact the card issuer’s fraud department. Say that you did not open this account and that you want it closed.
3. Call your police department. A police report can spur the card issuer to more quickly remove fraudulent charges from your bill.
4. Contact your homeowner’s insurance company. An increasing number of insurers offer ID-theft victim assistance or coverage, usually at no additional charge. Also contact your employer’s human resources department and/or your credit union to see whether it offers an ID-theft victim assistance program. It might help you shut down additional attempts to steal your identity and/or compensate you for out-of-pocket expenses.
5. Freeze your credit before your 90-day fraud-alert period expires. If a credit card account has been opened in your name, your Social Security number is in the hands of at least one ID thief. The best way to prevent additional fraudulent accounts from being opened in your name is to permanently freeze your credit with each of the three major credit-reporting agencies—Equifax (www.Freeze.Equifax.com)…Experian (Experian.com/freeze/center.html)…and TransUnion (TransUnion.com/credit-freeze/place-credit-freeze).
Freezing or unfreezing a report may cost up to $10 but usually is free for victims of ID theft and/or seniors—either age 62 or age 65. (The fee and age for seniors vary by state.)
Tip: When you want to apply for credit after triggering a freeze, ask the lender or credit card issuer which credit-reporting agency it uses and then unfreeze only that agency’s credit report. Then refreeze it once your application is approved.
Or request a onetime-use PIN or code from the agency and provide this to a lender so that only it can access your report. Only mortgage lenders typically check all three credit reports.