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Problem: Your identity has been stolen!

Likely Cause: You'll probably never know. Your credit report was illegally pulled, or your Social Security, credit card, or ATM number was scammed.

The Fix: Take these steps as soon as possible. (This section includes tips from the Federal Trade Commission.)

  1. Cancel ATM/credit cards and report the issue to your credit card companies; request new account numbers if necessary. Change all PINs (even on new cards). Banks and credit card companies require notice in writing of any compromised accounts; you can use the FTC's fraud affidavit to provide that notice.
  2. Change the passwords to all your financial-institution Web sites.
  3. Explain the situation to the fraud department at each of the three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, 866/640-2273), Experian, 800/493-1058), and TransUnion, 800/916-8800). File forms as required.
  4. Examine your credit report (each agency will provide a copy) for illegal or inaccurate listings. File forms disputing the reports as appropriate.
  5. File a police report locally or where the theft took place (if you know). Ask for copies of the report; you'll need to send it to credit agencies, and you should keep one, as well.
  6. File an ID theft complaint with the FTC. You can do so online via its Complaint Input Form.

How to Avoid It Next Time: You can get one credit report free per year per credit agency; try checking one report every four months for timely monitoring. Use strong passwords and PINs (for tips on creating strong passwords, see the Privacy Watch column, "E@4#N or E@4#W? How to Remember Strong Passwords"). Don't share your Social Security number if possible. Consider limiting the business you do on the Web to sites you've vetted.

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