My brother's voice was laced with panic. "Please call me back," he said in the voicemail. "I got a notice today that my credit score is in the 600s and I don't understand why."
My stomach knotted. I had an inkling why. His Social Security number and other personal information had been compromised in a major data breach, and over the past couple years, he'd been getting calls from debt collectors for unpaid credit card balances and cell phone service. He'd been able to prove the balances weren't his, but now that he was seriously ill, he didn't the energy to fight the identity theft. His good credit was being destroyed.
I've also been the victim of identity theft and was able to resolve it quickly, but I found it's a whole different ballgame trying to help someone else resolve their issues. It wasn't a straightforward process, it was frustrating (and, to be frank, infuriating), and it gobbled up hours of my time.
I learned a lot over the year it took me to get my brother's finances back in order, so if you're helping a parent, grandparent, friend, or sibling clean up up the financial devastation that identity theft wreaks, here are some tips to save you time and energy:
Notify banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions immediately of the theft. I accompanied my brother to all of his financial institutions and helped him report the theft. Every bank and credit union was understanding and added security flags to his accounts to protect them from unauthorized access. We also had his debit and credit cards reissued and changed his passwords. Unfortunately it meant he had to give up some conveniences with a few accounts, but the additional security measures meant his assets were protected from these criminals.
Call all the companies where fraud occurred and file reports. Here's where things got tricky; my brother's health problems made it difficult for him to explain the situation when he called these companies so he asked me to do it. The only way I could get someone to speak with me was to have my brother on the phone with me to give the customer service reps permission to talk to me. If you're able to get through, ask that they close or freeze the accounts. If you're not able to, you may have to do what we did: become your loved one's power of attorney or conservator. More on that below.
Place fraud alerts on your credit with the credit bureaus. It's free to do this, and it will make it difficult for anyone to open up new accounts in your loved one's name for a year. (The alerts can be renewed.) However, this was a difficult and prolonged process for us for two reasons. First, the crooks had damaged my brother's credit so badly we couldn't answer the security questions correctly on the credit bureaus' websites to file fraud alerts online. Second, when we called, they wouldn't speak to my brother if I was on the line with him. I had to become his power of attorney and send the credit bureau copies of the paperwork before I could talk to them. The good news? Once you file an alert with one credit bureau, they'll notify the other two bureaus for you.
- File reports with law enforcement, the Federal Trade Commission, and your state's Attorney General. In Massachusetts, you're asked to file a police report once identity theft is discovered, and then file a report with the FTC and the State Attorney's office. In Connecticut, where my brother lives, we had to file a report with the state police, who advised us to also file a report with law enforcement where the actual theft occurred (Pennsylvania). I was able to gather some additional information about the theft when I spoke with the detective in Pennsylvania that helped me further protect my brother's accounts from fraud, such as how the thieves operated and how they may have accessed my brother's credit.
- Look into legal assistance. As I alluded to above, having legal paperwork that gave me authority to act on my brother's behalf made the process of clearing up his credit a much easier process. Once the credit bureau had a copy of my power of attorney, I was able to get the fraud alert placed and obtain copies of his credit reports to look for other fraudulent accounts (which, fortunately/unfortunately, I found). The power of attorney can last as long as it takes to resolve the effects of identity theft, or it can be kept in place to continue helping your loved one manage their finances. Speak to an attorney about the options available to you in your state. If your loved one is unable to handle their financial affairs, it may be time to look into conservatorship, which can be voluntary or involuntary. A conservator is a court-appointed person who oversees the financial and personal affairs of an adult.*
- Set up preventative measures to avoid future theft. I'll never know for certain how or why my brother became a victim of identity theft, but I noticed a number of things my brother was doing that put him at risk for victimization again. Encourage the person you're helping to keep their personal information safe. These steps include:
- Instructing them not to give out any personal information to anyone over the telephone or via email, including credit card numbers, account numbers, login names, passwords, Social Security numbers, or other sensitive information, such as a birth date or mother's maiden name.
- Installing virus protection and security apps on their computers and other electronic devices. When choosing a program, look for one that runs in the background so that you never have to think to yourself, "When was the last time I ran a scan?"
- Setting them up with a password manager. I noticed my brother was writing his passwords down on a sheet of paper. I downloaded a password manager and showed him how to store all of his logins and passwords securely on his smartphone.
- Initiating alerts on credit cards and debit cards. Any time a charge is made on one of my brother's credit cards, he gets a text alert. And with Hanscom FCU's Online Access, for example, he has Alerts and Security options. We set up alerts to notify him if his security alert preferences are changed, a new user is created, or a new computer browser is identified.
- Buying them a shredder. Encourage them to shred anything remotely sensitive instead of throwing it in the garbage or recycling, where it can be taken and used by thieves.
Once a vulnerable family member or friend has had their identity stolen, it's an ongoing job to keep them from being victimized again. Vigilance and regular reviews of their accounts, along with establishing proper security measures, however, can lower the risk of identity theft from happening again.
* The content is developed from sources believed to be providing accurate information. The information in this material is not intended as legal advice. Please consult legal professionals for specific information regarding your individual situation.
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