Falling victim to identity theft is a traumatic experience, upending your life for months (or sometimes years) until it’s resolved. Aside from its financial costs and its impact on your daily life, identity theft creates a substantial emotional burden as well.
Getting past your identity theft experience means taking a number of practical steps to reverse the damage to your finances and credit score. You may also find a degree of emotional closure by helping authorities track down the scammer and ultimately by pressing charges for identity theft.
Starting the Enforcement Ball Rolling
If you realize — or even have reason to suspect — that you’ve been the victim of identity theft, taking quick action can help minimize the impact on your life and finances.
Start by reporting the incident to the FTC’s IdentityTheft.gov website. This does a couple of things: First, it makes your case official. Second, it walks you through creating a recovery plan, a road map of steps you’ll need to take to resolve the situation.
Next, report the incident to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) and to your local law-enforcement agency or local law enforcement in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred (if you know it).
Be prepared to provide all of the information you can muster that might be pertinent to your case. What you’ve got will vary, depending on whether the identity thief victimized you through a phone scam, phishing email, a romance scam or some other method. Depending on the situation, you might:
- Record any phone numbers before they disappear from your caller ID
- Save the phishing email, and screenshot it, print it or forward it to law enforcement
- Screenshot texts, personal emails or chat conversations you’ve had with your scammer
- Preserve any written communications, invoices, business cards or other documents (get them scanned for online or digital reporting)
- Take time to jot down every detail you can remember about your interactions with the thief, and go back to flesh out your notes whenever anything new occurs to you
The most heartbreaking cases involve a friend, family member, neighbor or trusted caregiver taking advantage of their privileged status to steal personally identifying information, often of a senior, a minor or a dependent adult. In those cases the identity thief sometimes has the means to destroy evidence, so take care to secure as much physical evidence as possible (and change the passwords on any affected accounts).
Taking Steps To Stop the Identity Thief
Aside from getting law enforcement involved, you’ll also need to engage with the main credit-reporting agencies and any merchants or creditors who have been defrauded by your identity thief. This won’t entirely prevent your identity thief from exploiting you, but does make it much harder (and minimizes the damage while the investigation is underway).
Start by contacting TransUnion, Equifax and Experian through their respective fraud-reporting sites or phone numbers. Inform them that you’ve been the victim of identity theft, request copies of your current credit reports (so you can track down any suspicious activity) and then place a fraud alert or credit freeze with each agency. There’s a lesser-known credit-reporting agency called the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange, used mostly by cable companies, utilities and some phone providers; you should place a fraud alert with them as well (bogus cellular accounts are low-hanging fruit for identity thieves).
Once you’ve gotten your credit reports from those agencies, reach out to any companies that have issued credit or sold merchandise to your identity thief. Speak to their fraud, loss-prevention or customer-service department, whichever is appropriate, and request that those charges be reversed or the accounts closed. You may need to furnish them with copies of your FTC and police complaints, as well as the credit reports.
Some specialized types of identity theft may require you to reach out to yet other companies or government agencies. For example, if the identity thief has exploited your medical insurance, you will need to report it to your private insurer or, if applicable, Medicare or Medicaid. If your identity has been misused to commit tax fraud, you’ll want to notify the IRS as well.
Pressing Charges for Identity Theft
Some police forces may not have much experience with identity theft, and may even be unwilling to field your complaint. Be persistent, and explain to them that creditors often require a police report in order to clear your records (and your name!). You should also be very clear that you intend to press charges once your thief has been identified and located. Police departments have to prioritize their time and energies, and showing that you won’t let it rest can make your case a higher priority than it might otherwise be.
Next, find out where and how you should file charges in your jurisdiction. In Florida, for example, they’re handled by the state attorney for your local court circuit — unless the identity thief is part of a crime ring operating across multiple circuits. In that case it goes to the Office of Statewide Prosecutions. Reach out to the appropriate office and ask what the procedure is for pressing charges in your jurisdiction.
Once you’ve completed those essential preliminaries, it becomes a waiting game. If you know your identity thief and have solid proof of wrongdoing, charges could be filed within a matter of weeks. If you’re waiting on the results of a police investigation, it can take months (perhaps a year or more) for that to come to fruition and result in an arrest. Once that happens, it will take still longer for prosecutors to prepare a case and set a court date.
Being Your Own Advocate
With the best will in the world, law-enforcement agencies are never going to be as invested in your case as you are. They have a lot of cases to be concerned with; you have just one. You may need to be proactive about keeping the ball rolling, especially in scenarios where your local police aren’t experienced with identity theft.
Encourage them to check the FTC’s identity-theft database, for example, to see if your case is part of a new cluster of related incidents. Taken together, those might make a more complete picture than your case in isolation (and make it easier to track down the culprit). Just contacting them regularly for updates can make you the proverbial “squeaky wheel” and keep your case active.
You can also speed the process by doing a bit of sleuthing yourself. The police definitely have lots of resources to help track down an address, email or phone number, but it takes time and energy to do that. If you use Spokeo’s people search capabilities to do that first, and provide them with screenshots or printouts of the results, you could potentially speed the process. If you’re really lucky, the police will already be familiar with the names you provide.
What Kind of Outcomes To Expect
Each state has its own identity-theft laws. Depending on the circumstances, your thief might face a misdemeanor charge and a fine, or a felony and some jail time. Most states make distinctions based on the dollar amounts involved or the damage caused (as with many other crimes). Several also reserve sterner penalties for cases involving a breach of trust, where the identity thief is a family member or caregiver and the victim is a minor, a senior or a dependent adult.
Some states also have forfeiture provisions in their legal code, to help you recover any stolen money without further legal action. Outside of those states, you’ll need to file a separate civil suit to recover any out-of-pocket losses. The National Conference of State Legislatures maintains a handy state-by-state list of identity-theft laws, with their corresponding penalties.
Typical jail time in most states ranges from under a year to four or five years, depending on the circumstances of the case. There are exceptions: Florida allows for sentences up to life in prison for those who steal your identity through impostor scams (pretending to be the police, a bank official or a credit counselor, for example).
Hang In There
The process of hunting down an identity thief, initiating a court case and awaiting sentencing can take time, and it will feel even longer while it’s happening. It may seem to happen in slow motion if you’re desperately eager to find some closure and ring down the curtains on the whole unhappy episode.
All you can do is hang in there and be persistent. Criminals often count on their victims giving up on the process before it comes to fruition, which makes it possible for them to continue doing what they do. Staying focused and seeing your case through to its conclusion isn’t just for you: It takes a scammer out of circulation and puts a conviction on their record.
That won’t take away the stress you’ve experienced, but it just might help someone else avoid what you’ve gone through.
- Identity Theft Resource Center: The Identity Theft Resource Center’s 2021 Consumer Aftermath Report Reveals Impacts on COVID-19 Identity Crime Victims
- US Federal Bureau of Investigation: Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3)
- TransUnion: Do You Know How to Report Identity Theft?
- Equifax: Security Freeze & Fraud Alerts
- Experian: Fraud Alert
- National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange (NCTUE): Consumers
- Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services: Protecting Yourself & Medicare From Fraud
- US Internal Revenue Service: Reporting Identity Theft
- Florida Attorney General: Identity Theft: Working with Law Enforcement
- National Conference of State Legislatures: Identity Theft