How to Recover from Identity Theft

Identity theft is a devastating event, a violation far more personal than ordinary burglary or even a mugging. Some people have even compared the level at which the identity thief violates their victims to being sexually assaulted. As a result of this very intimate violation of one's personal life, the victim is often shocked and bewildered, and as a result finds it very difficult to cope with the situation and respond appropriately.

Clearing one's name after having been the victim of identity fraud is extremely difficult and painful. First, there is the direct loss of money as a result of the thief's actions. Your bank accounts may have been emptied, and you may be receiving demands for payment from creditors as a result of accounts opened in your name.

Then there is the damage to your good name, which can take years or even decades to repair. You may find it extremely difficult to get credit to buy a car or a house, or even to turn on utilities at a new dwelling. It may even be hard to open a checking account or to get a new job because of the blots the identity thief has left on your credit record. Worse, you have the continual problem of being assumed to be the culprit rather than the victim. Some victims of identity theft are still being questioned about their identity as a result of scams that happened ten or more years ago.

Even if you have seen media portrayals of identity theft, whether in news shows such as Dateline or in dramas such as Law and Order, you need to be aware that they don't really give a feeling of the emotional damage identity theft does. Many victims of identity theft have to deal with depression and suicidal thoughts as a result of the havoc wreaked upon their lives by having someone masquerading as them and perpetrating frauds in their names.

Imagine having all your savings wiped out. Not just your regular savings account, but even your 401K or other retirement account, vanished into someone else's pocket. All that money you've spend years salting away for your retirement is now gone forever, and with far less time to take advantage of compound interest, you're facing the possibility of a severely diminished quality of life in your old age.

Imagine that after a lifetime of always paying your bills on time, even when it meant going without, you suddenly start getting dunning letters from creditors you've never even heard of. You contact them, certain that there must be some mistake, but they insist that you contracted these debts. Soon the calls come in from collection agencies, hectoring you as though you were some kind of deadbeat. If you cannot prove that these debts were contracted fraudulently, you could even have your wages garnished for years to come in order to pay these creditors for the money some creep stole by using your good name.

Suddenly the life you've built for yourself through years of hard work is in shambles, and it's compounded by constantly having to prove that you're an innocent victim rather than a lying crook. Is it any wonder that many victims of identity theft have serious thoughts about putting themselves out of their misery?

The first thing you absolutely must do when you discover that you have been the victim of identity theft is contact the police. Let them know everything you know about what has happened to you. Give them all the information you have on anything which has been opened in your name, as well as funds that are rightfully yours which have been stolen from you.

You will also want to contact all financial institutions with whom you have had a relationship. It may be difficult to sort out the tangle of legitimate and fraudulent transactions, but it is essential to show that you are not trying to get out of anything you legitimately owe, and that you are indeed an innocent victim, not a culprit.

Also contact all three credit reporting agencies and closely examine your credit reports for fraudulent accounts. If the identity thief has been particularly busy, there may be even more accounts that have yet to go past due through which this person has stolen hundreds or thousands of dollars, money the creditors will expect you to repay unless you can prove that you did not contract those loans.

If possible, get legal advice. In your newly straitened financial circumstances, it may be difficult to retain a lawyer, so don't be too proud to turn to Legal Aid or other pro bono legal services.

Also, be sure to get help for the emotional trauma of being a victim. The police or other agencies may be able to point you in the direction of social workers or other counselors who can help you through the thoughts of suicide that often result from the seeming hopelessness of your situation. Your church, synagogue or other faith community may also be a source of support in this time of need.

Above all, do not let the sense of violation and betrayal created by identity theft push you away from your primary ties. It is very important to have your family and friends to provide emotional support when it seems like the entire world is against you. It could take months to sort out the tangle of fraudulent transactions made in your name and you will want to have friends and family at your back while you're doing it. Don't be ashamed to lean on anyone for emotional support during this time of need.

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