Despite the greatest planning and efforts to protect themselves, millions of people every year are victims of identity theft. Covington Police Detective DJ Seals, who teaches a course on ID theft prevention, admits that even he is at risk of becoming a victim at some point.
"I like to ask people, 'What do you do for a living? Are you good at it?' So are these folks," Seals said. "That's what they do for a living. This is their job, their career. It's not a hobby; it's how they live. If you are good at what you do, they are good at what they do. If they make a mistake, they don't do it again. If something didn't work, they try something different."
So what should people do if they think they may be victims? First and foremost, they should check their credit reports, Seals said. Equifax, Experian and TransUnion are the main online credit report companies.
People can get one free credit report from each of them once a year. Seals recommends using all three reports a year.
If people see something unusual on the credit report, they should call all of their major banking institutions and report the thefts.
"I don't care if your Master Card was stolen, but your check card wasn't, call them all," Seals said.
This will allow the banks to issue fraud alerts on the accounts. Social Security can also issue fraud alerts for a social security number.
"People always say, 'Well, I've been the victim of identity theft; I'll change my Social Security number.' You can't," Seals said. "It is imprinted with you. But you can change your account numbers, immediately. It's a hassle to change you credit card and checking numbers, but you have got to do it to be completely safe."
Seals also suggests documenting every step of the process by writing down who was talked to, what time they were talked to and what was said in the conversation. A police report should also be filed.
"Do something to document it immediately," he said. "These banking institutions want to make sure that you are really a victim, so the earliest date you can report it, the better."
If a person finds he has been a victim of fraudulent charges, he should go to the bank and get an affidavit of forgery. An affidavit of forgery simply states that the victim did not authorize that transaction.
"It does two things. It allows me to prosecute. I can't prosecute without an affidavit of forgery," Seals said. "The second thing is does is allow you to get your money back. A lot of banks will not give you your money back without an affidavit of forgery."
Once victims pick up their police reports, they should make several copies to be distributed to bill collectors.
"Every time you get a letter or something saying, 'Hey you need to pay me,' you send them a copy of that police report," Seals said.
All letters should be sent certified mail. Seals said it was easy for a company to say they did not obtain the mail, but sending the letter certified ensures there is a record they signed and received the correspondence.
"Identity theft can take a very long time for you to feel like you can come above water again," Seals said "The way to insure that is to take copious notes, keep excellent records. Don't rely on anybody else to do it. Don't rely on your credit card company to do it. Don't rely on anybody but yourself. Keep a diligent eye on your credit report. Not just this year. Keep an eye on it next year too and maybe the year after that, just to make sure."
Seals said victims often think if their ID is stolen and used multiple times, that it is the same offender, but this is often not the case.
"It is very common for someone to steal an identity and never use it, but instead to sell it. They will sell it on the Web. There are whole Web sites out there that sell people's information. That's very lucrative business."
An identity being sold outside of the US is a growing trend, especially to parts of Asia and South America.
Though the process can be tedious and frustrating, there is always light at the end of tunnel.
"Most people come out smelling like a rose," said Seals.