Anyone can be a victim of identity theft. I know because both my husband and I had our identities stolen this year by thieves who used our personal information to file fraudulent tax returns, likely in hopes of getting refunds.
The signs that we were victims were obvious. We received a letter from the IRS stating that it had received our 2014 tax return but needed more information to process it. However, we hadn’t filed a return yet. Not long after that, we received a similar letter from the state of Michigan — only we don’t live in Michigan. So it was clear someone else had tried to file a return in our names.
Identity theft can range from the unauthorized misuse of an existing account, to the misuse of personal information to open new accounts or other fraud, such as the false tax returns that were filed in our name. In 2014 alone, there were an estimated 17.6 million identity theft victims, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
People typically become aware of identity theft when they’re trying to do something such as apply for a loan or rental housing, but are unable to because their credit has been tarnished by others. “Those are the signs that come up and hit you in the face,” said Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that provides free victim assistance.
Here are five signs that you might be a victim of identity theft and what you can do to limit the damage.
1. Your Credit Card Rate Rises
You shouldn’t ignore an increase in your credit card’s interest rate, Velasquez said. It could be something as benign as the expiration of a low introductory rate you got when you signed up for the card. But it could be a sign that your credit score has tumbled because something in your credit report is making you look like an increased risk and, therefore, you card issuer has hiked your rate, she said.
You can get one free credit report a year from each of the three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — at Annualcreditreport.com. Check your report for accounts that you didn’t open and for “hard inquiries,” which occur when lenders run your credit when you apply for a loan, mortgage or credit card. If you discover hard inquiries on your credit report from companies you haven’t authorized to check your credit, that’s a sign that someone else is using your name on credit applications, said Paige Hanson, senior manager of educational programs at identity theft protection service LifeLock.
2. You’re Getting Statements for Accounts You Didn’t Open
If you’re getting letters about accounts or services that you didn’t sign up for, don’t assume that there’s been a mistake and simply toss them in the trash. This is a red flag that someone could be using your personal information, Hanson said.
Contact the companies that mailed you the statements and close the accounts immediately. If money is owed, do not offer to pay what is due, Hanson said. If you do so, “you’re saying that those charges are mine,” and it will be difficult to contest them, she added.
3. You’re Getting Calls From Debt Collectors
This is one of the more obvious signs of identity theft, but it doesn’t always send up a red flag for people, said Robert Siciliano, a security expert with BestIDTheftCompanys.com, which rates identity theft protection services. “You would be amazed at how many people ignore those calls.”
You might assume that calls from people claiming to be bill collectors are actually scams aimed at getting you to divulge your personal information — and oftentimes they are, Hanson said. For that reason, you should never give information such as your birth date or Social Security number over the phone.
However, if you are getting calls from collection agencies, Hanson said you should find out the name of the lender or service you supposedly owe money to, the date the account was open and the account balance. Then do an internet search for that company. If it is a scam, you’ll likely see reports of it in your search results. If not, call the lender or service directly to find out if it has an account in your name.
4. Your Auto Insurance Rates Go Up Unexpectedly
If your auto insurer raises your premium and you can’t figure out why, it might be a sign that someone has used your identity to get a driver’s license and has racked up traffic violations in your name, Velasquez said. “Take the time to check it out before it becomes a horrible problem” by calling your insurer, she said.
The signs that someone else is using a driver’s license with your name could be much more obvious. For example, local law enforcement might appear at your door with an arrest warrant if an identity thief living as you is pulled over for a traffic violation and doesn’t show up for court, Siciliano said. Or you might get mailings from attorneys seeking to represent you for crimes you didn’t commit — but someone posing as you did, Velasquez said.
5. You Get Ads in the Mail for a Health Condition You Don’t Have
You might be on mailing lists to receive information about medical equipment or treatments depending on what sort of information you’ve allowed your medical provider to disclose to third parties, Velasquez said. But a large number of mailings with ads to manage a particular health condition that you don’t have is a red flag that someone could be using your personal information to get medical treatment, she said.
Signs of medical identity theft also can show up in your insurance statements — those letters you get from your insurer that you likely toss because they say, “This is not a bill,” Hanson said. You need to read these statements carefully to make sure that you actually received the services or treatments that medical providers are reporting to your insurer. If you see a claim or the name of a doctor or hospital you don’t recognize, contact your insurer immediately, Hanson said.
Learn More: Your Social Security Number Was Stolen—Now What?
What to Do If You’re a Victim of Identity Theft
Start by reporting that you’re a victim of identity theft to local law enforcement. The police likely won’t be able to identify and catch the person who stole your identity, but they will give you an incident report that you’ll need to dispute unauthorized accounts, charges or activities in your name, Siciliano said. “Having that report on hand shows lenders that you have a government agency that believes you’re a victim.”
Contact lenders, companies and service providers to cancel any unauthorized accounts or dispute unauthorized charges. Siciliano recommends placing a security freeze on your credit report, which will prevent the credit reporting agencies from releasing your credit report without your consent. You’ll have to place a freeze through each of the three credit bureaus and perhaps pay a small fee, depending on the state where you live. But this fee should be waived if you have a police report showing that you’re a victim of ID theft, Hanson said.
This freeze will stop identity thieves from taking out credit from traditional sources in your name. But they might still be able to get loans in your name from sources that don’t require a credit check, such as payday lenders. And the freeze won’t stop thieves from using other personal information such as your health insurance policy number or Social Security number.