04/25/2012 11:01 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

4 Steps to Take If You Are a Victim of Identity Theft

What do you own that's more valuable than money and more precious than jewels, but can't be locked up in a safe? Your identity. And thieves will do anything to take it.

In 2010 alone, 8.1 million people were victims of identity theft, according to an annual survey of consumer fraud from Javelin Strategy & Research. Identity theft is the most commonly reported consumer complaint. If you have a credit card and a Social Security number, you're at risk. Be aware of the steps to take if you ever suspect you're a victim:

1. Place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit report.

Contact one of the three credit bureaus:
Equifax, 800-525-6285;
Experian, 888-397-3742;
TransUnion, 800-680-7289.

Once you place a fraud alert with one credit bureau, they are required by law to share that information with the other two so your record will have a fraud alert activated at all three credit bureaus. Explain that you're an identity theft victim and ask that a "fraud alert" be placed on your record.

After the alert is placed, any creditors that contact one of the credit bureaus will need to contact you before changing existing accounts or opening new ones. In addition, once you make your request, credit bureaus are required to provide a free copy of your report for you to review. When you receive your report, check your personal information for any fraudulent accounts opened in your name and for unauthorized changes. Also, review the section of your report that lists "inquiries." If "inquiries" appear from the company or companies that opened the fraudulent account(s), ask that they be removed from your report. In a few months, order new copies to verify your corrections and changes have been made.

If you are a victim of identity theft, credit bureaus are required to provide you with two free credit reports that year. Generally, you may receive one free credit report per year and the credit bureaus may charge you a fee for any additional requests. After the 90-day fraud alert you may choose to place a seven-year fraud alert if you wish. Again, if you place the seven-year fraud alert with any credit bureau, that bureau will alert the other two. a regular basis, secure your mail, and keep important papers in place.

2. Close accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.

Notify the fraud department of banks and credit card companies, alert utility companies via phone, and follow up with all companies via mail. You should request a Return Receipt from the post office when communicating with all companies and keep them with your records as proof of alerting all parties. If there are fraudulent charges, ask the company about forms for disputing those transactions, close the accounts and open new ones with new Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) and passwords. If personal checks were stolen or misused, close the account and ask your bank to notify the appropriate check verification service. Again, whenever possible, keep a paper record for your files to indicate what was done and when, in case any other issues arise.

3. File a police report with your local police, the community where the identity theft took place, or your county sheriff.

If that doesn't work, try your state police or state law enforcement authorities. If you're told that identity theft is not a crime under your state law, ask to file a "Miscellaneous Incident Report" instead. Get a copy of the report in case you need proof of the crime. If you're unable to obtain a copy, be sure you get the report number.

4. File a complaint with the FTC.

Contact the FTC's Identity Theft Hotline by telephone at 877-IDTHEFT (438-4338) or online at The FTC enters complaints into a secure consumer fraud database, accessible to law enforcement agencies, for use in pursuing criminal investigations.

While no one can promise that you won't become a victim of identity theft, there are measures you can take to help reduce your chances. Stay alert, shred anything containing personal information that you wish to discard, monitor your credit report on a regular basis, secure your mail, and keep important papers in a safe place.

This article is based, in part, on information provided on

By Gabby Phillips, Associate Director of Content, Women & Co.

About the Author:
Gabby joined Women & Co. in May, 2009. Today, she oversees the development and distribution of all content and commentary for Women & Co. She is constantly searching for topics, content and contributors that are important, interesting and relevant to you, so Women & Co. becomes your go-to source for everything you want to know about personal finance. Gabby holds a B.A. from Colgate University, and brings experience to her role at Women & Co. from financial services companies such as Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., Merrill Lynch, and Citi.