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In this digital age, identity theft is a growing problem. In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission received almost 400,000 reports for credit card fraud, a type of identity theft that is divided into two distinct categories: new accounts and existing accounts. The first type, also known as application fraud, is when someone steals your credentials and uses them to open up new credit card accounts in your name. Existing account fraud occurs when the criminal steals information for credit cards that you already own.
Both types of credit card fraud are a hassle to resolve, but it will likely take longer in the case of application fraud because the potential for damage is much greater. It’s possible that the bad actor who has your sensitive personal information will use it to open not just one but multiple credit card accounts.
If you're dealing with existing account fraud, the problem can usually be resolved by notifying your credit card issuer of the fraudulent charges and requesting their removal, called a chargeback, from your account. But shutting down new account fraud can be a different beast entirely. It will require persistence and some know-how, but it can be done. “It can seem like a daunting process, but there are people that are going to help you along the way,” says Allison Murphy, senior director of U.S. card fraud prevention and detection at Capital One.
If you’re a victim of new account credit card fraud, take these steps to reclaim your finances and your life.
1. Determine if you’re a victim
New account credit card fraud often first announces itself when you get a bill with charges you never made. However, you can detect fraud earlier by regularly checking your credit report. AnnualCreditReport.com offers free credit reports every week until Dec. 31, 2023; after that, annually. Once you receive it, look for accounts that you didn’t open yourself.
You can also sign up for credit monitoring with all three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. That service alerts you when certain changes are made to your credit report, such as the addition of new accounts or when a hard inquiry is made into your credit.
If you find evidence of new account fraud, it makes sense to comb through all of your legitimate accounts to see if they’ve also been compromised. Check your checking, savings, credit and HSA accounts, and verify that all charges are valid. Keep organized by designating a folder for all fraud-related documentation such as billing statements, signed contracts, emails, screenshots, letters you’ve written and letters from the credit card and credit bureau companies.
Then, as a precautionary measure, change the passwords for any financial accounts that you have access to. “You want to lock down those passwords to ensure that those same bad actors can’t access your information through the same door that they just used,” Murphy says.
It can seem like a daunting process, but there are people that are going to help you along the way.
2. Contact the credit card’s fraud department
Call the credit card’s fraud department and explain that you’re a victim. Request that any fraudulent accounts that you didn’t authorize be closed and the charges erased so that you’re not responsible for the bill. You’ll probably need to speak to the issuers again after filing an Identity Theft Report with the Federal Trade Commission, so keep the issuer’s contact information for future reference. Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, advises that you should “follow each issuer’s steps, keep a log of who you talked to, when and what you’ve done.”
If you’re feeling embarrassed about identifying yourself as a victim, remember that the fraud departments exist to help you in precisely these situations. “We want to make you whole, and we have ways to get those accounts closed and clean up your accounts,” Murphy says.
3. Contact the three national credit bureaus
Freeze your credit
To prevent the criminals from opening any more accounts with your information, place a security freeze with all three credit reporting companies. When a freeze has been installed on your credit report, no one can open new accounts in your name. If you need to give creditors access to your credit report — you’re applying for a mortgage, for example — you’ll contact the three credit bureaus again to unfreeze your credit for a specific time period of your choosing. You can permanently unfreeze your credit, but doing so eliminates a major protection against future fraud.
Place a fraud alert on your credit report
As an extra safeguard, you can also add a fraud alert to your credit report. If lenders see a fraud alert attached to your credit file, they must contact you in order to verify your identity to ensure that the person requesting credit is, in fact, you.
Fraud alerts last for one year but can be renewed after they expire. Victims of identity theft can get an extended fraud alert that lasts seven years, but you need to have an identity theft report to qualify.
And you only have to contact one of the credit reporting agencies for a fraud alert: each company is required to notify the other two on your behalf.
4. Get the government involved
File a report with the Federal Trade Commission
File an Identity Theft Report at www.identitytheft.gov or by calling 877-438-4338. This document is critical as it creates an official record of the fraud, which entitles you to certain rights for identity theft victims. You’ll need to save it, since issuers will likely ask for a copy. After receiving the report, the FTC will also generate a personalized recovery plan for you.
File a police report
File a complaint with your local police or sheriff’s department. You may need a copy of the Identity Theft Report you filed with the FTC and proof of your identity such as a passport. The police report has a few uses. According to Axton Betz-Hamilton, author of "The Less People Know About Us," a memoir about her experience with familial identity theft, “Creditors will often request the police report as proof that you are a victim of identity theft.” Velasquez added that some credit card issuers will require a police report before they remove fraudulent charges from the account.
I would not pay a dime of any fraudulent debt that is in your name ... If it’s not yours, continue to dispute it.
5. Contact the issuers and credit bureaus, again
Be persistent about removing fraudulent charges
Maybe the credit card companies were reluctant to close the fraudulent accounts and are still sending you billing statements. Once you have a copy of the Identity Theft Report you filed with the FTC, contact the issuer’s fraud department again and repeat your request. If the issuer needs it in writing, refer to this sample letter.
Once closed, have each issuer send you a letter confirming that the fraudulent accounts were closed and that you are not responsible for the charges. Store this letter with the other documentation related to the identity theft.
Block fraudulent debt from your credit report
Unpaid debt that identity thieves rack up in your name may appear as a derogatory mark on your credit report, compromising your ability to access credit. However, you can ask the credit bureaus to remove, or block, fraudulent debts from your report.
Blocking requests must be made in writing and must include a copy of your FTC Identity Theft Report, proof of identity and a list of fraudulent debts on your credit report. If the block is successful, creditors may not turn debt that was a product of identity theft over to a collections agency.
Send your letter, a copy of your Identity Theft Report and proof of identity to the three credit bureaus. Because of the highly sensitive information contained within the Identity Theft Report and blocking request, consider using USPS’s Registered Mail service, which secures mail with cages, safes or locks.
6. Don’t pay any fraudulent debt
When billing statements flood your mailbox and interest charges cause the debt to swell, it may be tempting to start paying off the debt while you reach a resolution with the issuers. However, Velasquez and Betz-Hamilton generally advise against doing so, saying that paying the debt legitimizes it.
“Once you start paying on that debt, you’ve said, ‘It’s mine’,” Velasquez says. “You’ve taken legal responsibility for it. It’s extremely hard to walk that back.”
If you aren’t making headway with the issuers, you can hire an attorney or get free legal help through organizations like Legal Aid. The Identity Theft Resource Center also provides free assistance to victims of identity fraud.
“This is a really complicated space, and no one should be ashamed of needing help and advice,” Velasquez says.
A previous version of this article misstated the deadline to check credit reports for free every week. This is available through Dec. 31, 2023. The article has been corrected.