Here's what to do if your personal information has been stolen.
The envelope landed like a lead weight. A single sheet of paper inside announced that Walmart had denied me credit on a device installment payment plan.
I considered the battered iPhone 6 in my pocket, racked my brain to recall my last Walmart run and opened the next envelope. It was thick, from Verizon, and had a big bill inside: nearly $1,000 for the first installment on several new smartphones and corresponding phone lines.
But my carrier is AT&T. And my phone had been long paid off. Gulp.
One 57-minute phone call with Verizon later, the situation was clear: Someone had used my Social Security number to go on a bender, buying top-of-the-line devices and signing up for costly service plans.
I'm not alone. A 2018 report from Javelin Strategy & Research found that identity fraud hit a high in 2017, with 16.7 million U.S. victims. And, Javelin found for the first time, more Social Security numbers—about 35 percent of the total—were stolen than credit card numbers.
I hope you never end up in my shoes. But if you do, here's what to do next.
First, report the identity theft to the appropriate agencies. Identitytheft.gov, a Federal Trade Commission resource, is a good place to begin. You also can file a report with your local police department, which helps to create a paper trail.
You'll also want to report the theft of your SSN to the IRS (800-908-4490) to prevent a thief from collecting your tax refund. While you're at it, see if your information is being used by someone else for employment purposes by reviewing your Social Security statement at socialsecurity.gov/myaccount.
Place a fraud alert with one of the three major consumer credit bureaus: Equifax (888-766-0008), Experian (888-397-3742) or TransUnion (800-680-7289). Whichever you place an alert with is required to contact the other two. A fraud alert notifies businesses to verify your identity before extending credit in your name. Identity theft victims can also opt for an extended alert, good for seven years.
By placing a fraud alert on your account, you're eligible to get free credit reports from each agency. Review those for any unfamiliar activity. (Anyone can order a free copy of their credit reports every 12 months via annualcreditreport.com.)
Consider a credit freeze, under which no one—including you—can access your report to open a new account. Under a new law approved by Congress, as of Sept. 21, the big three will be required to let you freeze and unfreeze your credit file for free. (A freeze must be placed at each bureau.) The legislation also increases the standard fraud alert time from the current 90 days to one year.
If you think your SSN has been used at a business, contact its fraud department to notify them that you're a victim of identity theft. Finally, be sure to check your bank and credit card statements for any unusual activity.
You don't have to go it alone. The Ohio Attorney General's Consumer Protection Section provides an Identity Theft Unit to help. The unit has two free programs: traditional assistance, where a consumer advocate works with the appropriate agencies on your behalf; and self-help assistance, where you'll receive a step-by-step guide and have access to consumer advocate support.
Given all of the legwork it takes to try to clean up an identity theft mess, you might wonder if it makes sense (or if it's even possible) to start over with a new Social Security number. In short: probably not.
For one, getting a new SSN from the U.S. Social Security Administration isn't easy. You'll have to prove your number was used to commit identity theft, that you've been harmed as a result (in the form of legal or continuing credit issues), and that you've tried to catch the identity thief. Even then, your old number will still be valid, so you'll have to keep monitoring it, and government agencies and businesses will still connect you with it. Plus, a new SSN means you'll have no credit history to draw upon, which will make getting credit challenging until you build a new history.
There is some good news, though. While there are no quick fixes for identity theft victims, by taking the right steps, you can clear your name—and your Social Security number.
Jennifer Wray is a freelance writer and new mother.