A few years ago, when I started talking about identity theft, people looked at me like I had grown a second head. Everyone was quite sure I was being a “Chicken Little” alarmist, that the banks and credit card companies would take care of everything, and there was no way the Federal government would allow Social Security numbers to be used by other people. That sort of thing just didn’t happen, back in the late 1990’s. Well, alright, maybe it happened once in a while, but that was the exception – it would never be as widespread as I was saying. Today, things are a lot different. Now that numbers have started being tracked, and the news has picked up on the subject, some people pay a little more attention when I do presentations about identity theft. I spend most of my time discussing ways to protect yourself from identity theft, but it’s not unusual to have identity theft victims in the crowd as well. And they tend to ask more questions for the benefit of everyone else in the room. Without question, the most frequent question I hear is “What do I do if I’m a victim of identity theft?”
How you respond to an identity theft has a great deal to do with which of the 7 types of identity theft you are a victim of. Most of the people I talk with think of financial identity theft immediately - bank accounts and credit cards. The process for recovering from financial identity theft is probably the easiest of all, because it has been in the public eye for so long now. Regardless of how it happens, my recommendations are to act as though your wallet or purse was stolen.
But if you’ve been a victim of Social Security identity theft the process is a little more intense. Alright, that’s an understatement – the process is a lot more intense, and you’ll be spending years working through the problems that come up. You won’t just be dealing with the Social Security Administration, but also the Internal Revenue Service, because most Social Security identity theft is committed for the purposes of working for a wage – a wage that will be reported under your number, leaving you liable for the taxes. Despite the fact that the Federal government has been aware of this issue for decades, the system is set up in such a way that it will be very difficult to get this straightened out.
If you’ve been a victim of criminal identity theft you may find out with a very rude awakening – being arrested. Honestly, it doesn’t do any good to tell an officer “Wait a minute, that wasn’t me… I didn’t do that.” Not only do they hear that every day, all day long, but their job isn’t to determine if you did or did not commit a crime, their job is to make sure you go in front of a judge who will set an appointment (read “court date”) to determine if you did or didn’t commit the crime you’re accused of. Just getting to that point may take months, but the first step, getting arrested, is pretty immediate. The only recommendation I make for clients who have been victims of criminal identity theft is to get a lawyer – jumping through legal hoops is almost impossible without legal help, and court appointed attorneys will usually try to convince you to plea guilty to a lesser charge just to get the case off their desk. This is not the best route to take in most cases.
Without a doubt, the scariest form of identity theft is medical identity theft. This is becoming far more common as illegal immigrants use more and more stolen insurance policy numbers to get medical benefits. The only way to recover from medical identity theft safely is to keep a copy of all medical records yourself, and bring these to your doctor. It’s bulky and cumbersome, but definitely beats the alternatives – like getting treated for something you don’t have, or not getting medication you need because of false information in your medical file.
By the time I’ve told someone everything I just covered, they usually ask about identity theft protection programs. I think it’s a great thing to have one, but it’s very important to know exactly what your protection program will (and won’t) do. And, of course, almost all of them are only going to help if you were enrolled before you became a victim of identity theft. The most important thing I can recommend on this is to know how to evaluate identity theft protection programs so you know what you can expect when it happens to you.