Identity theft: What to do if you’re affected

Ever feel like your world is full of numbers, passwords and pieces of paper? All of that personal and financial information is worth big bucks to crooks. Anyone can be a target of identify theft and identity fraud, and it’s not just terrorists and organized crime we should worry about. Thieves could be corrupt employees of organizations we trust — or even friends, coworkers and family members.

More bad news: the rates of identity theft and identity fraud continue to increase — and so do the costs. Last year, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) received more than 11,000 complaints from people affected by these crimes — to the tune of over $10.8 million in losses. It can take weeks or months for victims to sort out the damage, not to mention the harm done to their reputation and credit rating. Because criminals often hide behind other people’s identities, some victims have found themselves investigated for crimes they didn’t commit.

Sadly, even our best efforts to prevent identity theft won’t stop determined criminals. Here’s what you should do when your information ends up in the wrong hands.

When your information is compromised

When someone acquires your personal information for use in a crime you may not even know it’s happened. At other times, however, the source of identity theft is more obvious, like your wallet is stolen, you respond to a phishing scam or you receive notice of a data breach from a company you deal with. Luckily, there are steps you can take to prevent or limit the misuse of your data.

Contact relevant organizations and authorities. Make a list of what information has been compromised and start calling the agencies involved to find out what to do next. Some information may warrant immediate action — like replacing a credit card, closing down a vulnerable bank account or notifying the authorities if a piece of your I.D. is missing or stolen. You may need to place a fraud alert or “flag” on your file to monitor any suspicious activity.

Some steps aren’t so drastic. For instance, you may need to change your PIN and your online password but not actually close down a bank account if someone gets your debit card number. Talk to the customer service agent about what steps are necessary, and err on the side of caution.

Keep records. Take notes on the steps you take — like when and how your information was compromised, which organizations you contacted about the problem, with whom you spoke, what actions were taken (like flagging your file and for how long) and what follow-up is still required. A spreadsheet, table or chart can be a big help.

Keep an eye out for identity fraud. Everyone should be keeping a close watch on things like their financial statements, but now is a good time for some extra vigilance to see if your information is being misused. Watch for these warning signs:

– You receive bills or statements for accounts you didn’t open. You might also receive information about jobs you never had, apartments you didn’t rent or a house you didn’t buy.

– Charges appear on your bank and credit card statements for things you didn’t purchase.

– Your credit reports show new loans or requests that you don’t know about.

– A collection agency calls about late payments for things you didn’t buy, or debts you didn’t incur.

– Your monthly bills and statements aren’t showing up, or you’re missing expected items like T4 or T5 statements or replacement credit cards.

– You apply for credit and are turned down or offered a higher interest rate than normal, even though you’ve never had problems before.

– There are errors on your credit reports or financial statements, like your name is misspelled.

If you’re concerned about your finances, you can request a credit report from Canada’s two main reporting agencies, Equifax Canada and Trans Union Canada (you’re entitled to one free report each year, or you can purchase additional reports).

When your information is being misused

Unfortunately, you might not realize you’ve been the victim of identity fraud — when your information or identity is being used to commit crimes — until there is a major problem. What’s next?

Report it immediately. If you think you’ve been the victim of identity fraud, experts recommend reporting the incident to the police as soon as possible. (Contact the local fraud unit or use the non-emergency phone number.) They may not be able to catch the crook, but you’ll have an official record of the incident. If you file a report, make sure to get a copy in case you need proof later on.

Experts also recommend reporting the crime to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (Phonebusters) or the Canadian Competition Bureau. These agencies don’t investigate, but they assist local law enforcement and educate others about known scams and issues.

Notify your financial institutions. As previously mentioned, you may need to close accounts and get replacement cards. Let your bank or credit card company know about any suspicious charges or transactions on your account right away so you can get your money back.

Talk to the authorities. If the crimes involve government-issued identification like a health card, driver’s license, birth certificate, passport or social insurance number, you’ll need to cancel the documents and get a replacement. Each agency has their own procedures to follow and will explain the process to you.

Call the credit reporting agencies. What a criminal does with your information can put your reputation at risk, like impacting your credit score and preventing you from getting a loan in the future.

Contact any affected organizations. Call any institutions or organizations where your information was used to commit a crime. (For example, any company with whom a criminal has used your information to take out a loan or apply for a credit card.) You’ll want to clear your name, and they’ll want to investigate the situation.

Keep pertinent information handy. We mentioned before to take notes on the process, but be sure to also keep track of your time and the costs you incur. (You may need this information later on.) Keep all proof of the crime — like your police report or statements showing fraudulent charges — in a folder or binder so you can access it easily.

Watch out for further trouble. Just because you’ve resolved the problems doesn’t mean you’re off the hook yet. Experts warn that once people have been victimized, they’re likely to get hit again because criminals often keep information for later use, or sell their list of “suckers” to other crooks. Continue to keep a close eye on your statements and credit reports as a precaution.

Important contacts

– Worried about your finances and your credit score? Contact Canada’s two main credit reporting agencies: Trans Union Canada (1-866-525-0262, Québec 1-877-713-3393) and Equifax Canada (1-866-779-6440).

– If your passport has been lost, stolen or compromised, contact Passport Canada (1-800-567-6868).

– When your government-issued I.D. is involved, alert Service Canada (1-800-O-Canada or 1-800-622-6232).

– If your mail is stolen or tampered with, report the problem to Canada Post (1-800-267-1177).

– To report the incident so that others don’t get scammed, contact the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre(1-888-495-8501) or the Canadian Competition Bureau (1-800-348-5358).

– For questions and concerns regarding the privacy of your personal information, contact the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (1-800-282-1376).

If you’re in the U.S., contact the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Trans Union and Equifax have American counterparts, but people should also contact Experion.

Even though the links above may contain email addresses, many agencies discourage using email to help resolve identity theft issues because it isn’t secure. Call or visit in person (where possible) instead.

Learn more

There’s a lot to know about identity theft. Here’s where you can find more information, including tips for prevention:

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre

Consumer Measures Committee — Identity Theft: What to do if it happens to you

Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada — Identity Theft and You

Royal Canadian Mounted Police — Identity Theft and Identity Fraud

U.S. Federal Trade Commission — About Identity Theft

Additional source: RCMP: Identity Fraud in Canada — July 2007

Photo © Andrey Burmakin

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