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Identity theft is continuing to skyrocket thanks to the proliferation of online shopping and the sharing of personal information with companies and financial institutions alike. In fact, hundreds of millions of people have had their data stolen. This can occur through massive breaches of banks, stores and other businesses, or a dishonest person can misuse data that was disclosed on medical forms, employment records or other documents.

Identity theft can be devastating. Thieves can open fraudulent accounts, make purchases with existing accounts, or empty bank accounts altogether. Victims often don’t realize there’s a problem until criminals have been misusing their accounts for weeks or longer.

Call Your Creditors
If you notice an unauthorized charge on a credit card, contact the bank immediately to dispute it. It’s possible that someone made a mistake, but there’s also a good chance that your identity has been stolen. Check your other accounts for fraudulent activity, as well.

If you think your identity has been stolen, close the compromised account and all others (even if you don’t have any specific reason to think they were compromised), and open new accounts with different account numbers. It will be a hassle, but it will prevent any other fraudulent transactions and damage to your credit score.

Check and Monitor Your Credit Reports
An identity thief may have used your information to open new accounts in your name. Request copies of your credit reports from all three bureaus and look for any accounts you don’t recognize.

Notify the credit bureaus of the suspected identity theft and place a fraud alert on your report. If someone tries to open a new account in your name, the application will be flagged and the creditor will contact you to verify that you made the request. Another option is to freeze your credit, which would stop credit bureaus from sharing your information at all. Keep in mind that this would make it harder for you to open credit cards and to obtain loans if you need them.

If your identity was stolen as a result of a data breach, the company whose records were compromised may offer you free credit monitoring, which can help you spot any suspicious activity and provide you with peace of mind. If you haven’t been offered free credit monitoring, you can sign up online for a monthly fee.

Notify the Authorities
Contact the Federal Trade Commission to file a report and receive helpful advice. Your local police department might be able to help if your identity was stolen in your town. If you think it was stolen somewhere else, you can file a police report in that jurisdiction. Unfortunately, identity thieves operate all over the world and are often not caught.

Be Vigilant
If you suspect that your identity has been stolen, act immediately. Contact your creditors, check your credit reports and report the crime to the authorities. You should also check your credit report at least once a year and monitor monthly financial statements to catch any suspicious activity as quickly as possible.

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