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How to Clear Your Name:  A Guide for Identity Theft Victims

 

This page offers step by step instructions to help identity theft victims clear their names and clean up their credit reports.  You should use this guide if you suspect that an identity thief has opened new accounts in your name without your knowledge or permission. 

If you are dealing with a simple problem like a lost or stolen wallet, you probably do not need this guide.  You can follow the simpler instructions on our Identity Theft Basics page.

Step One:  Get Organized

Identity theft is a difficult problem to tackle, but with patience and determination you can succeed in clearing your name.  You will have to make a lot of phone calls and write a lot of letters.  Don't give up!  NYC residents can always call the NYC Financial Justice Hotline at 212-925-4929 for advice and encouragement.

The first step is to clear a safe space in your home where you can keep copies of letters and notes relating to your case.  It will help if you have a different file for each fraudulent account, along with a file for the credit reporting agencies.  You will also need to keep a log in which you record all your telephone calls.  (Here is a PDF version of a sample identity theft log.)  You will need to record the name of the person you talked to, what they said, and the date of the call.  You should also keep track of how much money you spend for postage, copies, and phone calls.

Step Two:  Request a "Fraud Alert" and Order Your Credit Reports for Free

Contact the fraud departments at each of the three major credit reporting agencies.  Tell the agencies that you are the victim of identity theft and wish to place a "fraud alert" on your account.  Ask the agencies to send you a free copy of your credit report.  You can also ask them to print only the last four digits of your Social Security Number on your report (a good precaution).

        Equifax:  1-888-766-0008 / Consumer Fraud Div., POB 740256, Atlanta, GA 30374

        Experian:  1-888-397-3742 / P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013

        TransUnion:  1-800-680-7289 / Fraud Victim Assistance Department, POB 6790,

        Fullerton, CA 92834

Technically, you only need to call one credit reporting agency, and all three will place a fraud alert on your account.  However, we recommend that you call all three agencies yourself.  That way, you know the job is done, and you can order all three credit reports, which you will need anyway.

We strongly recommend that you order your credit reports separately from each individual credit reporting agency.  So-called "three in one" reports may seem convenient, but they don't necessarily contain all the information you will need, and they can be confusing to read.

We strongly recommend that you order your credit reports by phone or mail, not online.  Like the "three in one" reports, online reports may not contain all the information you will need.  Also, by ordering your credit reports online you might accidentally waive important rights, such as your right to take the credit reporting agencies to court if they don't follow the law.  This risk does not apply if you order your credit reports by phone or mail.

The phone system is automated, and it is in English only.  If you would like to order your credit reports by mail instead of by phone, you can use this letter (PDF).

 

Know Your Rights!

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) guarantees your right to a fraud alert.  Once you have a fraud alert on your account, creditors cannot open any new accounts in your name without telephoning you to get your express permission.  A fraud alert prevents the thief from opening new accounts in your name.

  • The initial fraud alert lasts for 90 days (about 3 months) and ends automatically.
  • When you request a fraud alert, you have a right to a free copy of your credit report.
  • If you have filed a police report, you can send a letter to the credit reporting agencies asking to extend the fraud alert.  You must include a copy of the police report in your letter.  The extended fraud alert lasts 7 years and ends automatically.  You can also remove the fraud alert early if you send a written request to the credit reporting agencies.

 

Step Three:  Review Your Credit Reports to Assess the Damage

First, you might want to make a copy of your credit reports so that you can keep one clean copy and take notes on the other.  Review each of your credit reports carefully and look for:

  • Addresses where you have never lived.
  • Credit accounts that you didn't open.
  • Debts on your accounts that you can't explain.
  • Inquiries from potential creditors that you didn't contact yourself.

Make a list of all the accounts that you believe have been fraudulently opened in your name, along with the creditor's contact information.

Step Four:  Notify the Creditors of the Fraud

Using the contact information provided in your credit reports, call the creditors and ask to speak to someone in the fraud department.  Do not waste time explaining your situation to regular customer service representatives, as they will not be able to help you.

When you are speaking to the fraud department representative, remember to ask for his or her full name, telephone extension, and fax number, and note this information in your log.  Tell the representative that the account was opened by an identity thief, not by you.  Ask the representative to close the account and send you copies of the documents that the thief used to open the account.  The representative might need to see more documentation of your identity before agreeing to send you this information.  Ask the representative whether the creditor will accept the Federal Trade Commission's ID Theft Affidavit (PDF) for this purpose.  (Most creditors should accept the ID Theft Affidavit, but some may insist on seeing a police report before sending you this information.)

Afterwards, you should send a fax to the creditor to document your conversation.  You can use this Sample Fax to Creditor as a model.  Attach a completed ID Theft Affidavit (see step five).  If you have a police report (see step six), include that as well.  Remember to keep a copy of the fax confirmation so you can prove they received it!

Step Five:  Complete the ID Theft Affidavit and Fraudulent Account Statements

The Federal Trade Commission has created an ID Theft Affidavit (PDF) that you can fill out and use to report your crime.  You do not absolutely need to have the affidavit notarized, but you might find it more convenient to do so.  You only need to complete ID Theft Affidavit once, but you should fill out a separate Fraudulent Account Statement for each fraudulent account.  Make sure to keep the originals in your files.

Step Six:  File A Police Report

A police report is essential to clearing your name and credit reports.  When you go to the precinct to file your report, you should bring:

  • Picture Identification (preferably government-issued)
  • Proof of address (preferably a utility bill)
  • Copies of your credit reports showing the fraudulent accounts.
  • Statements from the creditors who have opened the fraudulent accounts, if you are able to obtain them (see step four).
  • A copy of your completed ID Theft Affidavit and Fraudulent Account Statements.

Some people have had difficulty getting the police to take a report.  Be persistent!  Remember, you are a victim of a crime, and as a crime victim you have a right to file a report.  If the police at your precinct do not want to take a report, calmly explain to them that the credit reporting agencies require a police report in order to delete the fraudulent accounts from your credit report.  If the police refuse to take a report, call the NYC Financial Justice Hotline at 212-925-4929 for assistance.

When the police take a report, they will interview you, take your evidence, and give you a file number.  About a week later, you should return to the precinct with your file number.  At that time you can order a copy of your police report.  There may be a small fee for the report.

Step Seven:  Report the Theft to the Federal Trade Commission

The Federal Trade Commission is a national clearinghouse for identity theft victims.  The FTC cannot help you resolve your individual identity theft problem, but it is still a good idea to report the crime to them.  The FTC enters your information into a national database that goes out to law enforcement agencies across the country.  If your case is similar to other cases, there is a better chance that the thief will be caught.  The FTC can also take action on behalf of a group of people who have fallen victim to the same crime.

You can file a complaint with the FTC online or by telephone at 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338).  You can also call this number for general advice about dealing with identity theft.

Step Eight:  Dispute the Fraudulent Items on Your Credit Report

Once you have your police report, follow the general instructions on our Correcting Your Credit Report page in order to remove the fraudulent accounts, wrong addresses, and other incorrect information from your credit report.  You can use this Sample ID Theft Dispute Letter (PDF) as a model.

Here are a few reminders that are especially important for identity theft victims:

  • Include a copy of your police report with your dispute letter.
  • Send a copy of your dispute letter to the creditor as well as the credit reporting agency.
  • Make sure to keep a copy of your dispute letter for your records and send everything certified mail, return receipt requested so that you have proof that both the credit reporting agency and the creditor received it.
  • Check your credit reports again after about 40 days.  If the disputed information has not been corrected, call the NYC Financial Justice Hotline at 212-925-4929 for assistance.

 

Know Your Rights!

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, credit reporting agencies must remove fraudulent accounts from your credit report if you send them a letter containing proof of your identity and a copy of a police report.

Credit reporting agencies may refuse to remove the information under certain narrow circumstances (such as where they suspect you are lying about the identity theft) but not without notifying you in writing.

 

Step Nine:  Obtain a Letter of Clearance from the Creditor

Once you have a police report, you should send a copy to the creditor, along with a letter asking them to conduct an investigation and send you a "Letter of Clearance."  A letter of clearance is a written statement from the creditor that acknowledges that you are an identity theft victim and are not responsible for the debt.  A letter of clearance can be helpful in case the account reappears on your credit report or is later sold to a debt buyer.

 

More Information

Identity Theft Basics

 

Helpful Links and Resources

Federal Trade Commission ID Theft Pages

Identity Theft Resource Center

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

Complete text of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (PDF):  Look at sections 605A and 605B for information about your rights as an identity theft victim.

Information from the U.S. Postal Service about certified mail and return receipt.

 

Sources: Federal Trade Commission, Identity Theft Resource Center, New Economy Project.

 

Disclaimer:  This site provides general information for consumers and links to other sources of information.  This site does not provide legal advice, which you can only get from an attorney.  New Economy Project has no control over the information on linked sites.

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