We’ve talked a lot about the government shutdown in the past two weeks. Nonstop media coverage means that you probably have words like “furlough,” “debt” and “default” swirling in your mind. I’ll confess, I too have been obsessed with the media storm, which is why I didn’t anticipate another storm brewing on a personal front.
I received a call last week from my credit card provider. “There have been some suspicious charges on your account today,” they said. “Have you bought anything from Idaho recently?” After confirming that I had never been to the Land of Famous Potatoes, they deleted the charges and cancelled my card, promising to send a new one within the next three days. I hung up the phone and let the truth sink in: My identity had been stolen for the third time in 10 years.
I’m hardly alone in my plight. A survey conducted by Javelin Strategy and Research reported 12.6 million identity theft cases in 2012 alone. If you are among the unlucky, you understand how identity theft can hinder and even “shut down” your life. As I’ve learned, identity theft has the power to strike more than once, and I’m working to make sure it doesn’t strike again. Keep the following lessons in mind to avoid your own personal crisis. Let’s focus on one shutdown at a time.
To avoid identity theft and financial damage:
Get serious about your debt ceiling.
Some people only care about the bottom line. If you are accustomed to paying your credit card balance without reviewing the charges, now is the time to get serious about your debt ceiling. While the average credit provider now offers identity theft alerts, it’s important to perform your own financial audit each month to ensure the absence of fraudulent charges.
Don’t default on your commitments.
Here’s a terrifying example for you. The first time my identity was stolen, I left my wallet unattended in a café. The thief stole my debit card and cleaned me out, spending over $7,000 in a single weekend. At the age of 20, I wasn’t prepared to protect myself. I was a college student, paying my own tuition and my own rent. Without a credit card or other resources, I was literally penniless for 10 days, waiting anxiously for my bank to refund my stolen balance. In addition to keeping an eye on our belongings, here’s what we can all learn from this experience:
- Have a back-up plan. Crises often present themselves without warning. To avoid further damage during identity theft, it’s important to have a back-up plan. Open an emergency credit card and store it in a safe place. Use it once a month to keep your account active. Pay off the balance immediately. As an added measure, consider opening a safety deposit box to house your emergency card and $500 in cash. This strategy guarantees maximum security and cash flow when you need it most.
- Pay your bills. Unfortunately, identity theft doesn’t provide a free pass when it comes to your bills. My lack of preparedness resulted in an overdue electricity bill and a $25 late fee on my rent. My credit score survived, but a delay in my bank’s refund could have caused some serious damage. The moral: Don’t allow identity theft to damage other areas of your life. Use your back-up plan to cover your bills and protect your other commitments.
Perhaps it’s the abstract nature of identity theft, but few people react appropriately to their victimization. If someone stole your credit cards in front of you, you wouldn’t shrug and say, “I hate when that happens.” You wouldn’t be calm. You’d feel scared, violated, and yes, angry. Don’t underestimate the power of your own reaction. The unfortunate truth is that few identity thieves are prosecuted for their crimes due to lack of reporting from the victims themselves. When faced with an identity theft crime, find the motivation to ask yourself:
- Why did this happen? Does your computer have a virus? Did you leave your purse or wallet unattended? Note your own behavior and keep close tabs on your personal info. Your actions are the first line of defense.
- What can I do to hold my identity thief accountable? Your creditor may have their own way of handling identity theft, but it’s still imperative to pursue justice on your own behalf. Contact the following authorities:
1. The Federal Trade Commission. File a complaint over the phone by calling 1-877-ID-THEFT or by visiting www.ftc.gov and clicking Consumer Protection>File a Complaint at the top of the screen.
2. Local police. You may be one of many people affected by the same identity thief in your area. File a report with the local sheriff’s office and state police department. You may be part of a larger case against an ID culprit.
As we’ve learned, sometimes identity theft is unavoidable, but taking responsibility for your own safety is the first step to preventing further problems. Don’t assume the role of victim; take a stand and become your own advocate.