Protect yourself from identity theft

The crime takes moments, but the aftermath can last for decades.  A criminal steals your mail, breaks into your home, or steals job-seeking documents from your car - and suddenly your identity is not your own anymore.  It can hurt your chances of buying a home or getting a credit card, and can even make you lose your tax refund if the criminals file fake taxes in your name before you have a chance to file the real version.

Fortunately, if you know that someone has stolen personal paperwork, you can prevent them from damaging your credit with three phone calls:

    Call the police to report the initial crime, then call a credit reporting company to place a fraud alert, letting them know someone might be trying to use your information to set up new accounts.  There are only three credit reporting companies, and when you call one, the FTC says that company is required to alert the other two.

    The credit reporting companies are:

      For 90 days after you place a fraud alert, any time someone tries to use your information to set up a new account, the company will call you to make sure you actually want the account and it's not a criminal trying to set up a fake in your name.  If a criminal is still trying to use your information after 90 days, you can renew the fraud alert.

      You will also need to work with police and the FTC to file an identity theft report that protects you just in case a criminal does manage to rack up debt in your name.  You can call the FTC at 1-877-438-4338 or click here to get started on the process.

      As you file reports and track your credit, you might want to consider keeping a special file with paper copies of each document, and a timeline of when you finish each step so that if you have to deal with fake accounts, you have a clear record showing what happened and when.  You can find more information about fighting identity theft here.