If someone has taken a piece of your personal identification without your permission, such as your social security number or credit card number, you may be a victim of identity theft. The thief may use your information to rent an apartment, get a telephone, or purchase goods, all with the intent of leaving you with the bill. If your identity has been stolen, you can protect yourself by filing a police report and placing a fraud alert on your credit report.

Ways your identity could be stolen

Your identity could be stolen in a variety of ways. Thieves may pick through trashcans for discarded deposit slips or charge bills, or go through mail to find pre-approved credit-card offers, tax information, or bank statements, then divert bills to another address to hide their activities. They may steal credit card numbers while working at a retail store where you shop, seek access to personnel records, or steal purses or wallets.

Another popular method of identity theft is "phishing"—e-mails that impersonate a bank or major corporation and ask for your personal information. Thieves may call your home and pose as a researcher to get your name and address, then call your bank seeking additional personal information. The FTC recommends closely monitoring your accounts to detect identity theft quickly.

If your identity is stolen

If your identity is stolen, move quickly to assess the damage. You may find the thief has gotten a driver's license, filed taxes, gotten a job, a home or other loan, cable TV, or other services in your name.

Depending on the extent of the problem, it may be costly and difficult to repair your credit. If you don't contact your creditors about the situation, identity theft could impact your ability to make purchases or get loans in the future.

Most credit card companies will excuse charges you didn't make if you report the problem promptly. Respond to any inquiries from your credit card company about suspicious activity as soon as possible. Close any compromised bank or credit card accounts, and change your account passwords.

To protect your rights, you should file a police report and an Identity Theft Report as soon as the theft is discovered. This report will be given to credit reporting agencies and companies the thief may have defrauded with your identity.

You can also place a fraud alert on your credit report by contacting the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. This alert warns companies you deal with to watch out for fraud in your accounts, but continue to monitor your accounts for any suspicious activity.

If you are having difficulty getting credit card companies or credit reporting agencies to work with you, a credit repair attorney can tell you the steps you need to take to increase your credit rating.

Additional resources:

The FTC: About Identity Theft

The FTC: What To Do If Your Personal Information Has Been Compromised