money·4 min read

Here’s Exactly What to Do If Your Identity Has Been Stolen

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Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock"
Mar 24, 2022

Noticed a strange charge on your credit card? Or an account on your credit report that you never opened? There could be multiple reasons for this, but it could be that your identity has been stolen.  

I’ve heard of it, but what is identity theft exactly?

Identity theft is when someone uses your personal information to impersonate you or steal your financial assets. Think: having your wallet stolen but on a much grander scale. Reports of identity theft rose to 1.4 million in 2020. That’s nearly double than in 2019

But before you panic, know that there are ways to get your money (and your life) back after identity thieves strike.

First, figure out whether or not your identity has actually been stolen. 

We’ve all seen (what we thought was) a fraudulent charge on our credit card that was actually the pizza we ordered after a night out. So it’s important to double-check. A good rule of thumb: Check your finances once a week but ideally once a day. Watch out for anything that looks out of the ordinary. 

Here are some key red flags: 

An account on your credit report that you don’t recognize.

If you see an account under your name that you can’t remember opening, it could be a sign that someone has stolen your financial info. 

Your loan or credit card app was unexpectedly denied.

If you’ve been paying your bills on time but you get denied for that Sephora credit card, it may be a sign that someone is racking up debt under your name. 

Your credit card bill doesn’t appear in your mailbox.

Someone may have stolen your credit card, spent a ton of money, then changed the billing address so you wouldn’t find out. Sneaky. 

The IRS gives you a hint.

Someone might have filed a tax return in your name to get a hold of your refund. So when you file for your returns, the IRS will let you know that a return has already been processed in your name.

You get bills for things you didn’t purchase.

Sometimes criminals will test out a credit card or a bank account number they’ve stolen by making small purchases. So it’s important not to ignore these just because they’re tiny. 

Now act fast. 

If you think you’ve been scammed, you’ll want to do something about it ASAP. 

Call the company where the fraud occurred.

If this happened with a credit or debit card, call the bank that issued the card and report the fraud. They can send you a new one and refund you the money. Especially if you act within 60 days from when the strange charges appeared. 

Report it to the FTC.

The Federal Trade Commission (or FTC) stores info about identity theft cases. It’s a government agency and law enforcement uses their intel to track down identity theft perps. And they can create an entire recovery plan with actionable steps based on your specific situation. 

Call the cops.

This may help you catch the perp responsible. You should also ask for a copy of the police report. That way you can give copies to your creditors and credit bureaus as evidence. 

Set up a fraud alert.

Call one of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian or Transunion — and let them know what’s going on. The bureau you call is then required, by law, to let the other two know. By reaching out to the credit bureaus, you’re now entitled to a 90-day fraud alert. (Hint: A fraud alert lets credit bureaus know that you might be the victim of identity theft.) Creditors now have to take extra steps to ensure the person applying for credit is really you. 

Consider a credit freeze.

More drastic than a fraud alert, this is the ultimate protective measure. This actually stops new creditors from finding your credit report until you unfreeze it. 

If you take these steps ASAP, you’ll find it much easier to manage all the fallout that comes from getting your identity stolen. (Think: draining your accounts, ruining your credit, and getting you into serious debt.) 

But, what if it’s been more than 90 days?

Then you’re in for a bumpy ride. The longer identity theft goes unnoticed, the more havoc criminals can wreak on your finances. And the longer it takes to recover

On average, recovery can take anywhere between four days and six months. In some cases, if your life is endangered or your identity is constantly being stolen, you might even have to start from scratch — as in applying for a new social security number (or SSN). 

Safeguarding your information like your passwords, your SSN, and your date of birth to help prevent your identity from being stolen. Experts say personally identifiable information is at the heart of most fraud. 


Having your identity stolen is one of the most disorienting things that can happen to you. And, if left unchecked, it can do a number on your finances. But if you act fast — and stay vigilant — you’ll be okay. Looking for more information? Here are additional resources from the gov. 

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