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My Identity Was Stolen—Here’s What I Learned

Identity theft is affecting more Americans than ever before. No one thinks it will happen to them—but here's what to do when it does.

Chhaya-Nenecourtesy Chhaya Nene

How I learned of my identity theft

I had been back in the United States for exactly 10 days when it happened. After two weeks in Finland enjoying a much-needed family vacation, I was home checking mail when I saw a letter from the IRS. “Finally! They’ve sent my return!” I thought. Wrong. It was a letter saying my identity theft claim had been received and there was now a case open. The odd thing was, I had never filed a claim. Of course I rushed to dispute it, and here’s what happened. (Don’t miss the secrets an identity thief doesn’t want you to know.)

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I called the IRS

The first thing I did upon receiving the letter was to call the IRS. (Never give information to a caller claiming to be the IRS, which is a common phone call scam.) You’ll need to make sure you have at least two years of tax returns with you when you call, because they will use information from those as security measures. They will also ask about your family, your birth year, and the amounts you earned that you would find only on your tax return. If you ever end up in a situation like this, know when and how to freeze your credit. 

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I filed a bunch of forms

After speaking with an IRS spokesperson, I found out that someone had filed a return in my name in January, three months earlier than when I usually file. They had created a direct deposit account with no name specified and had filed a change of address form so that my mail would be redirected to an old address.

Although the criminal investigation unit of the IRS had flagged that tax return as fraudulent, they still sent this person $1,400 to a direct deposit account that had no name attached to it. When my real tax return arrived in March they realized that identity theft had occurred and so they began sending me letters informing me of the theft and delay of my return. However, I never received those letters because they were sent to an old address of mine and then stolen. The IRS still sent me my return, but not until July. Whoever applied for the direct deposit also received the initial payout.

The IRS spokesperson informed me that I had to file a 3911 form which tells the IRS to trace a refund and see who received it. You’ll also have to provide a copy of the identity theft letter you have received and fill out a 8822 form, which is the change of address if you’ve moved.

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I asked why

How could an organization with so much sensitive information allow this kind of breach to happen, I wondered. The IRS spokesperson told me that identity theft could have occurred when the IRS was hacked last year—or from someone hacking doctor’s offices, from someone not shredding their mail, from buying things online, and even from social media use. The spokesperson also said that these thieves have made more money this year by skimming minimal amounts from various people, so even if you’re very careful with sensitive information, it can be leaked. This is how you can protect yourself online.

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I made more calls

The IRS spokesperson told me that when identity theft occurs you need to call the Federal Trade Commission, the Social Security office, your banks, your tax preparer, and one of the three credit bureaus. You’ll also have a form from the IRS sent to you that will give you a special number that you must use in your returns going forward that indicates that you’ve experienced identity theft and that protects your return. It will help with identity theft protection over time.

To save time, visit the Federal Trade Commission link using the link above for a comprehensive checklist of what to do when identity theft occurs, the paperwork you’ll need, and all the steps to take to make sure you’re protected. All you need to do is sign up on the site, tell them what happened, and then continue to check in on the site. (These are the steps to take if your wallet is lost or stolen.)

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I took extra measures

As a precautionary measure, I filed for a credit card only after calling one of the three credit bureaus to see if it would work. Immediately, the credit card company called me to verify that it was actually me who opened the card. It is always a good idea to check and see if security measures are working. Here’s how:

  • When sending paperwork for the IRS, send it via certified mail to ensure extra security in transit.
  • At doctor’s offices, do not write your Social Security number; instead write “available upon request.”
  • Shred your mail.
  • If you work at a job where they leave your personal paperwork out, consider bringing an envelope to conceal your personal information.
  • Check your credit report once a month to see if anyone is using your personal information.

Don’t miss these three extra tips for preventing identity theft.