As Identity Theft Lawyers, We Explain Your Rights, How to Prevent This Crime, and When to File a Lawsuit
In the vast, multi-billion dollar consumer data industry, there are a massive amount of moving pieces, any one of which can be the source of significant problems for people just trying to live their lives. One of the most devastating and difficult situations to recover from is being victimized by identity theft. When this happens, people turn to identity theft lawyers to try to limit the fallout from this crime. Generally, this involves enforcing the consumer’s rights, holding companies accountable to their legal obligations, and helping to restore the consumer’s financial and emotional health.
As a nationwide consumer protection law firm with over seventy-five years of combined experience, our team of lawyers knows how to handle identity theft cases. As advocates and litigators, we support our clients every step of the way by explaining what identity theft is, how it happens, what to do if you’re an identity theft victim, and why a skilled and knowledgeable identity theft attorney is your best asset and greatest ally in an identity dispute. We’ve prepared this primer so you know the basics. Read on to empower yourself with knowledge, then reach out to take the first steps to recovery.
Understanding Identity Theft: More Than Just Stolen Identity
Identity theft is a crime in which someone accesses another person’s personal and financial information without authorization or consent. If this stolen identity is then used to commit further crimes, it is called identity fraud. It is possible to commit identity theft without committing identity fraud, but this legal technicality is more about how charges are brought against those prosecuted for the crimes. Identity theft is like the data equivalent of breaking and entering, while identity fraud is the equivalent of stealing everything in the house once you’re inside. They are companion crimes that combine to enable criminals to steal money, amass debt, and wreak absolute havoc in the victim’s life.
Identity theft tends to result in two types of identity fraud: depleting your money and accruing debts in your name. While there is an endless list of possibilities for how these crimes play out, these examples provided by Experian (one of the credit bureaus) identify some of the more common forms.
- Gaining access to already established credit cards and loan accounts in your name and using the available credit to make unauthorized purchases.
- Opening new credit cards or loan accounts in your name and accruing debts through unauthorized purchases.
- Gaining access to already established bank accounts, retirement accounts, and other financial accounts in your name and depleting them through unauthorized withdrawals.
- Opening new bank accounts or store accounts in your name and accruing debts through unauthorized purchases.
- Opening or accessing service accounts in your name and accruing debts through unauthorized services.
- Accessing and using your medical insurance for unauthorized procedures.
- Filing fraudulent tax returns in your name for a large refund.
- Accessing and using your government benefits or opening new benefit accounts in your name.
The Mechanics of Identity Theft: How Your Data is Compromised
Unfortunately, your data can be comprised by skilled criminals in a variety of ways, using both online and offline points of access.
Point of Sale Data Theft
Criminals use tools to gain access to your credit card or banking information at the point of sale (POS). “Point of sale” means at the register, gas pump, ATM, or other spot where you actively swipe, tap, or insert your credit or debit card to pay for a purchase. They alter the hardware at the point of sale to steal the data encrypted on your card (or your PIN) without you even being aware that it’s happening.
For instance, a skimmer is a secretive and discrete device made to look just like the hardware at the POS. It can be placed over or behind the actual hardware and captures the encrypted data when you swipe or insert your credit or debit card. Also, tiny cameras can be installed near the keypad that allows visual theft of the PIN as it’s entered.
Similar devices can also be used to “grab” your data from a card that is in your wallet, pocket, or purse. For these to work, all that’s needed is proximity. If someone is standing unnecessarily close to you, this may be the motive.
Mail and Trash Data Theft
Another method of collecting illicit data is by stealing mail from your mailbox or documents from your trash. Credit, debit, insurance, and benefit cards can be swiped from envelopes. Banking, healthcare, investment, insurance, benefit, and tax data can be swiped from the trash.
Online, Email, and Phone Scams
Identity theft can also occur through phone calls, text messages, emails, and web pages. This type of identity theft uses direct contact to entice you to enter your personal data online or provide your personal data directly to a scammer. This type of identity theft is also called phishing.
Scammers pretend to be any person or company that you would give personal, secure data to, such as your health care providers, insurers, banks, retail or online accounts, service providers, the Social Security Administration, the FBI, or some other government entity, a charity or non-profit, a school or university, or even your children, grandchildren, friends of the family, etc. Again, the goal is to mimic or copy legitimate persons, businesses, organizations, and government offices to gain access to your sensitive financial information, accounts, and passwords.
Some examples include:
- Fake Webpages. Webpages that show up in your search results that look like they are legitimate but are fake copies of the real thing. For instance, if you Google customer support for a cell phone company or an online retailer, a fake customer support account for that company might show up in your search results. Clicking the link, entering information, or calling the phone number can send you straight to a scammer.
- Fake Emails. Emails that show up in your inbox that look like they are legitimate but are fake copies of the real thing. For instance, you might receive an email that appears to be from your bank, a service provider, or a retail chain that is actually fake. Opening the email or attachments, clicking on any links and providing information, or replying with any information can send you straight to a scammer.
- Fake Phone Calls and Text Messages. Phone calls or text messages that show up on your phone that claim to be from a legitimate source, but are actually scammers.
Mistaken Identity vs. Identity Fraud vs. Identity Theft: Knowing the Difference
Identity theft is different than a case of mistaken identity, which is something that can show up on your credit report as well, but it is generally not as wholly destructive because it lacks criminal intent. Since identity theft and identity fraud are crimes, what constitutes each may differ slightly from state to state, but at their most basic, they are defined as follows:
- Identity theft is a crime characterized by the purposeful, unauthorized access of someone else’s personal, financial, and sensitive information.
- Identity fraud is a crime characterized by the purposeful, unauthorized use of someone else’s personal, financial, or other sensitive information.
These are distinguishable from mistaken identity, which lacks the intent to access and use another person’s data and, instead, just results from a data mishap of one kind or another. For instance, the data from two different people can be inadvertently combined into a single credit or background check report. This type of data problem is called a mixed file or co-mingled file, and it is a surprisingly common error. Though it causes serious harm that needs to be corrected, and the company responsible can be held legally liable, it is not a crime.
Notably, attorneys for identity theft can also help with any mistaken identity issues that arise from consumer reporting errors.
The Role of Identity Theft Attorneys
If you’ve been busy trying to find an “identity theft lawyer near me,” then it’s especially helpful to understand the role of an identity theft attorney in helping you resolve your current situation.
The formal name for a lawyer for identity theft is a consumer protection lawyer. These attorneys practice in the broad area of law aimed at helping consumers fight back against the exploitation and abuse that exists in the great power divide between giant corporations and everyday consumers.
When it comes to identity theft, the crime will be prosecuted by an attorney acting on behalf of the state or federal government. But, as the victim of this crime, you are left to clean up the mess on your own. This is where a consumer protection lawyer can support you. If you’re the victim of identity theft, a consumer protection lawyer can:
- Advise you on the full complement of your legal rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Electronic Funds Transfer Act, Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, relevant state laws, and others.
- Advise you on which companies, consumer reporting agencies, data furnishers, and state and federal agencies to contact, inform, and report the identity theft to.
- Guide you on the legal and practical steps to take to protect yourself in the immediate and long-term.
- Advise you on how to successfully dispute entries on your credit reports and help prove identity theft occurred.
- Hold consumer reporting agencies, data furnishers, and others accountable for stalls, delays, and untimely or inadequate investigations.
- Prevent you from dealing with unwarranted harassment from debt collectors seeking payment on fraudulent accounts.
- Hold accountable any party whose actions, omissions, or negligence facilitated the identity theft or worsened or prolonged the damage.
Legal Strategies to Combat Identity Theft
Identity theft sits at the intersection of several key pieces of federal consumer protection legislation and comparable state laws, which differ from state to state. The legal strategies employed to protect you will depend heavily on the specific facts of your case. Generally, building a strategy revolves around an understanding of the rights granted to you in this scenario, along with the obligations imposed on the banks, creditors, businesses, debt collectors, and others under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
How Identity Theft Lawyers Can Restore Your Financial Health
Identity theft lawyers can restore your financial health by knowing which, if any, debts or financial obligations you are liable for, which must be reimbursed or covered by the financial institutions or businesses, what the credit reporting obligations are, how to mitigate the worst outcomes, how to prevent debt collection harassment while your finances are being restored, and when to file a lawsuit for compensation if necessary.
How Does Identity Theft Happen?
Identity theft happens when your consumer data and other sensitive information are compromised. It is a very opportunistic crime, meaning that scammers engaged in identity theft tend to throw a wide net and see who they catch. Whether it’s at the gas station, through cold calling, or an online scam, they’re looking to take advantage of people who aren’t aware of how pervasive and widespread identity theft is. See above for more details about the specific ways this crime is carried out.
What You Can Do To Protect Yourself from Being an Identity Theft Victim
While it is simply not possible to guarantee that you will never deal with identity theft, there are things you can do to lessen the likelihood of falling victim. Check out our recommendations below for how to proactively shield yourself.
How Can Someone Steal Your Identity?
“Stealing your identity” is basically the informal way of talking about identity fraud. Identity theft and fraud are basically symbiotic crimes, but once your identity is actually used to access and open accounts, drain existing accounts, accrue debts, make purchases, open service accounts, collect insurance or benefits, etc., you are the victim of identity fraud. Or, as you might tell your friends, your identity has been stolen. A stolen identity shows up on your credit report, account statements, or other places as unknown, unauthorized transactions.
For identity theft victims, a stolen identity can become exponentially worse if it is used to commit crimes against other people.
What to Do If Your Identity is Stolen
If your identity is stolen, you’ll need to act quickly and make smart, strategic moves to protect yourself. You’ll need to get legal help, contact all relevant financial, retail, and government entities, review credit reports and account statements, request account freezes, file disputes, provide documentation, change passwords and access credentials, and find support to protect yourself mentally and emotionally throughout the ordeal. See below for some of the steps you can take.
How Can You Tell if You Are a Victim of Identity Theft?
Sometimes, it is obvious because the criminals made large, notable transactions or engaged in egregious identity fraud. Other times, it is subtle. Some criminals play the long game by using different identities to make smaller purchases less frequently. Over time, the loss can still add up, but it may take time before you or your financial institution catches up. As always, the best bet is to stay actively engaged with your accounts, statements, balances, and credit reports.
Navigating the Aftermath of Identity Theft
While at times it may seem impossible, you can make a complete recovery from identity theft. Some victims have an easier time than others due to the nature and extent of the criminal activity. Regardless, your best bet is to work with an attorney for identity theft who can guide you through the complex legal landscape and serve as an advocate and litigator as you seek to mitigate the damages through corrections and compensation.
Immediate Actions to Take Post-Identity Theft
- Contact a lawyer. They can assess your case, explain your rights, discuss the common pitfalls, and strategize a plan to help you succeed in salvaging your identity, reputation, and financial life.
- Freeze your accounts. Contact your credit cards, banking institutions, and credit bureaus to freeze or put a fraud alert on your accounts.
- Review your credit reports. Request free copies of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus (see above for information on how to do this) and review them for any suspicious activity or confirmation of a stolen identity on your credit report.
- Review your accounts. If you haven’t already done so, review every detail of your accounts (retail, credit, banking, retirement, healthcare, insurance, benefits, etc.) to look for anomalies. Take detailed notes of any activity that is a red flag, such as accounts you didn’t open, procedures you didn’t have, withdrawals you didn’t make, etc.
- Update your security. Change passwords, use security software, and buy RFID-blocking card carriers. Consider hiring an online security professional specializing in identity theft to help you understand and implement all of the recommended protocols and best practices.
- Report it. The federal government provides resources for reporting identity theft through the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). IdentityTheft.gov You should also report it to your local police, any relevant state agency, the Social Security Administration, the credit bureaus, and any companies holding accounts in your name.
Long-Term Solutions and Legal Recourse
Long-term solutions for identity theft victims will involve implementing consistent security practices to protect yourself. This can involve working with a professional to educate yourself on all of the ways that these scammers operate, purchasing and using online security software, and keeping fraud alters on your accounts for an extended period of time.
Who Will an Attorney Sue for Identity Theft
An attorney for identity theft will sue any of the parties responsible for creating or prolonging the problem or causing additional harm. This includes:
- If applicable, any company responsible for causing or contributing to a data breach or security failure that resulted in identity theft.
- Any company that enabled identity fraud by failing to use adequate review, approval, and investigation protocols for opening, depleting, or maxing out accounts in your name.
- Any company that engages in harassment, whether for debt collection or otherwise, with respect to fraudulent accounts, procedures, or obligations.
- Any company that does not act quickly and effectively to stop the fraud once notified.
- Any company that does not act quickly and effectively to investigate and remove instances of identity fraud from your credit history, profile, and reports.
Legal Remedies and Compensation: What Victims Can Expect
With any lawsuit that falls under the purview of consumer protection law, consumers who are harmed by identity theft and fraud are entitled to compensation to make them whole and prevent similar harm from happening again.
Identity Theft Attorney Fees
If you’re wondering about fees, then you are likely wanting to know if there is a “free attorney near me that helps with identity theft?” This is a great question with a surprisingly refreshing answer. You can find some peace of mind in the fact that you will never pay out of pocket for a consultation with one of the lawyers at Consumer Attorneys.
And, even better, you won’t pay out of pocket for any of our legal services if we represent you through your identity dispute. While it may seem too good to be true, the fact is that the FCRA requires the companies we sue on your behalf to pay all of our costs and fees when we win.
Preventative Measures: Staying One Step Ahead of Identity Thieves
The criminal engaging in identity theft is the morally and legally culpable person, and you are not at fault for being victimized. But, as it is with any crime, it is helpful to stay as current and consistent as you can when it comes to preventative measures. Check out our suggestions below.
Proactive Steps to Shield Your Personal Information
- Be aware of your account activity. Stay current on what’s going on with your accounts. Don’t let extended time pass without logging in and checking things out. This applies to accounts for banking, investments, benefits, insurance, healthcare, loans, credit reports, etc.
- Check your credit report regularly. If your credit card allows you to keep track of your credit score, check it regularly. If not, check your credit frequently with a free report from each credit bureau (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion).
You have the legal right to conduct weekly credit reviews without paying anything. You can do this online at annualcreditreport.com, by phone at 877-322-8228, or by mailing the printable request form. You should only use this government-verified site.
- Don’t give information to someone who contacts you. Never share personal information over the phone or online unless YOU initiated the interaction. If you didn’t initiate the phone call, text, chat, email, inquiry, etc., then hang up the phone, delete the email or text, and block the phone number or email address that it was sent from. Do this even if a caller claims to be from a company you do business with, a government agency, or the police. Do this even if they warn that you will face fines or punishment for non-compliance. Do this even if they claim to be your friend, relative, or someone else in need of help. Ask for THEIR information, hang up, call the company or agency directly, or call for help.
Similarly, do not call a number that THEY give you to verify that it’s a legitimate contact. In other words, hang up, delete texts or emails, and do your own research to find the legitimate contact information for the business, agency, or organization.
- Avoid giving out your Social Security Number (SSN). Most places that ask for your SSN do not actually need it. The fewer times you provide it unnecessarily, the less risk you’re at for Social Security Number identity theft. Never give it out to anyone who texts, calls, or emails requesting it or advising you to enter it after following a link.
- Be aware of phony emails and websites. They may look like legitimate companies, agencies, or organizations, but be skeptical, not trusting, when it comes to all online engagement. Never follow links in an email unless you specifically requested the email, and expect it imminently.
- Don’t use public Wi-Fi. Unless you have security measures in place or you are otherwise certain that it is safe to use, avoid using public Wi-Fi if you can. If you can’t, then be cautious about entering sensitive information like passwords or accessing secure sites while using it.
- Use an RFID-blocking purse or wallet. Keeping your credit and banking cards in a protected wallet or purse will help prevent the kind of data theft that can occur when someone is physically close to you and in possession of nefarious electronic tools.
- Use basic security recommendations. Follow all recommended online security protocols, like devising very strong passwords and using security software. Consider using a subscription-based password and monitoring service.
- Pay attention and trust your gut. If something seems or feels off, don’t take any chances. The potential for harm is tremendous if your instincts prove right, but you ignore them. On the other hand, no harm that will result from being cautious. No one from a legitimate business, agency, or organization will get upset, threaten, or harass you for being cautious with your data security.
Monitoring and Responding to Suspicious Activities
As consumers who willingly (and really must) engage in electronic commerce, it is in your best interests to do your part to identify and respond to suspicious activities. As discussed above, regular, consistent monitoring of your financial accounts (bank, investment, credit, benefits, insurance, medical, etc.) is one of the very best things you can do to catch and cancel this crime in its infancy.
Choosing the Right Identity Theft Lawyer: What to Look for
Look for a team of highly experienced and skilled lawyers who practice consumer protection law. At Consumer Attorneys, consumer protection is what we do every single day. We are a top-tier team of advocates and litigators who have helped thousands of clients recover from every kind of consumer protection claim, including finding full financial and emotional health again after being victimized by the crime of identity theft.
What Do Identity Theft Attorneys do?
An attorney who handles identity theft cases regularly understands the intricacies and nuances of the law, the scope of the possible consequences, the types of roadblocks that arise, how to help prove identity theft, identify and hold accountable the responsible parties, and get you compensation. Mounting a fast and robust defense is critical, and an attorney well-versed in the legal and practical aspects of this battle is best equipped to help.
When Do I Need an Identity Theft Attorney?
You need an identity theft attorney the first moment you suspect you have been victimized. This can be as blatant as realizing that accounts have been depleted or lines of credit maxed out, or it can be something as subtle as small, unrecognizable charges on your credit card statement. Some criminals engage in consistent, low-dollar value identity fraud over a long period so that it can easily fly under the radar.
Can I Handle Identity Theft Problems Without a Lawyer?
Yes, you can handle identity theft without a lawyer, but it’s complicated. You can handle any legal matter on your own. Some consumers have good luck resolving these matters on their own. However, for the most part, it is a complicated, sprawling web of intertwined issues, legal protections, and involved parties that is best navigated with a legal professional.
Trust Our Identity Theft Lawyers
As a nationwide consumer protection law firm with over seventy-five years of combined experience, we are here to support you, and we’re always right where you need us to be. You can trust us to help you make a full recovery.
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