Theft of financial identity is on the rise. Theft of financial identity occurs when an individual uses another's name, address, social security number or other identifying information to commit fraud.

Under state and federal law, credit and some debit card fraud victims are only liable for the first $50 of their losses, and typically most financial institutions will waive this amount. The harm to victims, however, can be significant and long lasting. Victims are usually left with bad credit and a damaged reputation. Currently, victims must work to resolve these problems on their own. This fact sheet provides a guide for victims working to get back their financial identity.

1. Contact your creditors and banks immediately.

These creditors may include credit card companies, banks, utility companies, and even landlords. Once you obtain the names and telephone numbers of the creditors whose accounts appear on your report as the result of fraud, contact them immediately by telephone and in writing. Let them know about the fraud, and ask for a copy of all account information and, if applicable, the credit application. Be prepared to fill out affidavits of forgery to establish your innocence.

You should also get replacement cards, new account numbers, and passwords for all of your legitimate accounts. Ask the creditors to issue a unique password for your account that is not associated with your social security number or your mother's maiden name.

If checking accounts have been fraudulently established under your name, file a report with the following check verification companies:

  • CheckRite: (800) 780-2305
  • Chexsystems: (800) 428-9623
  • SCAN: (800) 262-7771
  • Telecheck: (800) 710-9898

2. Begin keeping records

Start a log of the time and money you spend correcting your credit history. Under recently enacted state and federal law, any person found guilty of financial identity theft will be ordered to pay restitution to the victim for any financial loss, including lost wages and attorney's fees. Your records will help document your losses. In addition, some identity theft victims have experienced difficulty in cleaning up their credit histories and have found it necessary to take legal action against creditors and credit reporting agencies. This log should document your efforts to communicate and resolve the problems. Your log should include every phone conversation, including the date and time of your call, and the name and title of the person who assisted you. You should confirm all phone conversations in writing and keep copies of these letters and any other documents you send or receive.

3. Flag your credit file for fraud.

Call the fraud departments of the three major credit reporting agencies listed below.

Request that your credit report be flagged with a fraud alert and add to your report a statement that you are a victim of fraud and that all creditors should contact you at a phone number you provide to verify all future applications. Each of the major credit bureaus may have different procedures, so ask each one how long the fraud alert will remain on your report and the circumstances under which that period may be extended. You should also request a written copy of your report to review and verify that each piece of credit information is valid.

Warning: Placing a fraud alert may not necessarily prevent the fraud from resuming. Some creditors may not see these alerts if they do not obtain your full consumer report, but rather rely on a credit score or another automated credit application system. You will need to continue monitoring your report. Ask the credit bureau if they will supply you with a free copy every few months.

4. Review your credit reports

Look for credit accounts that you did not create and public records information that is incorrect and should not be linked to you, such as a court judgment. The credit bureau will be able to provide you with the full names, addresses, and phone numbers of the creditors with whom the identity thief opened accounts.

To have these fraudulent accounts taken off your report, you will need to write a letter to the credit bureau formally disputing these accounts. The credit bureau will have 30 days to investigate and remove any erroneous or unverified information.

You should also review your credit report for companies that have inquired about your credit without your approval. Ask the credit bureau to remove inquiries that are the result of fraud. Too many inquiries on your credit report within a short period of time may result in your denial of credit.

5. Report the crime

Police: File a police report and criminal complaint with your local police department and/or district attorney's office. Theft of financial identity is a criminal act in Massachusetts punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to two and a half years in jail and restitution of financial loss to the victim. In addition, law enforcement may use the federal Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998 to prosecute identity imposters. Be sure to keep a copy of your filed complaint, as some creditors may request it for verification of your case.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) : The FTC is the federal clearinghouse for complaints by victims of identity theft. Although the FTC does not have the authority to bring criminal cases, it assists victims by providing them with information to help them resolve the problems that can result from identity theft. You may call the FTC toll-free at 877-ID-THEFT (438-4338), or log on to:

Secret Service: The Financial Crimes Division is charged with investigating crimes associated with financial institutions. Typically, it will track complaints in an effort to discover crime rings, but will not investigate individual complaints. You can contact the Massachusetts Regional Office at 10 Causeway Street, Boston, MA 02222-1080, 617-565-5640.

U.S. Postal Inspector : Postal Inspectors may have jurisdiction over your case if the identity thief has used the mail to commit credit or bank fraud.

If you can determine where the fraudulent credit cards or checks were sent, contact the local Postmaster for that address and to file a complaint. Be sure to request that change of address forms submitted on your behalf not be accepted.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation: The FBI also may investigate financial crimes. Typically, the FBI focuses on fraud rings engaged in conspiracies to defraud financial institutions. You can contact the Massachusetts Regional Office at Suite 600, One Center Plaza Boston, MA, 02108 (617) 742-5533.

Social Security Administration: To report the fraudulent use of your Social Security number, you should contact the Office of the Inspector General's Fraud Hotline at 1-800-269-0271 and follow up in writing. Ask if you are eligible to change your Social Security number. The Social Security Administration, however, cannot help individuals fix personal records at credit bureaus, credit card companies, or banks.

6. Address public record errors

Your credit report may include civil judgments entered in your name for illegal actions committed by your identity thief. If this has happened to you, contact the court where the judgment was rendered and provide them with documentation that you are an identity theft victim.

Public records information is tracked not only by the three major credit bureaus, but also by smaller services like tenant screening companies, check verification businesses, and individual reference services. Contact these services as well to ensure that any false judgments entered in your name are removed from their files.