How to tell if a 'friend' stole your identity

Opening Credits columnist Eric Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for

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Dear Opening Credits,
I had a friend help me do my income taxes. I'm thinking she may have used my personal information because she doesn't have a job or income and I overheard her tell someone that she is getting a credit card in the mail. That makes me wonder how I can check if anyone signed up for a card in my name. -- Geraldine


Dear Geraldine,
What a distressing situation. Thankfully, though, you can overcome it. In fact, there are some valuable lessons to be learned from this experience. Here are the top three:

1. Never give untrustworthy people access to your personal information. Most people know someone who is not particularly principled. Your "friend" may be one of them. If she did use your identification to apply for and then receive a credit card in your name, she committed a type of fraud called identity theft. With access to your Social Security number, name and date of birth, she definitely could have opened an account, had it sent to her, charged it up and then not paid the bill. Because it's under your name, though, it would all show up on your credit report. It would wreck your credit rating and you could even get nasty collection calls.

The lesson, of course, is to make every effort to safeguard your personal data, from your SSN to your credit card numbers. Don't share any of it with friends. But even if you don't voluntarily give them up, thieves can still get that information in other ways, such as by rooting through your trash or circumventing your mail to steal your bank statements. Shopping online from unsecured websites is another way to open yourself to theft, so only use secured sites with excellent reputations.

2. Rely on yourself or professionals for tax matters. Completing income tax forms is serious business. If a layperson with little acumen on the subject attempts to complete them, they could harm you instead. Outside of the identity theft possibility, you may not receive the correct deductions or exemptions, causing a liability to be too high. And if they're responsible for sending payment on time but then don't, you'll wind up in debt to the government. A delinquency can trigger expensive penalties and interest charges being added to the balance.

The solution? You can do it yourself (easy with the 1040 EZ form, which many taxpayers can use), use ultra simple tax preparation software (which guides you to make the right decisions so you don't overpay, or underpay) or visit a tax professional. Legitimate preparers can cost as little as $30 or so for simple returns. The IRS can also be a source, though budget cuts have shredded its customer service ranks and made it hard to get a live person to answer your questions. If you can get through, it's a free call -- (800) 829-1040.

3. Review your consumer credit reports frequently and dispute accordingly. Too many people never check their credit reports! When they don't, they can miss serious problems -- such as a fraudulently opened credit card or paid-off cards that still read as a balance due.

Now is the time to head over to to pull your reports. It is the site set up by the three credit reporting agencies, TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. There you can access all three reports for free, once a year. Read them over, and if you do find evidence of foul play -- such as credit accounts that you did not open -- contact the police to file a report. Then write a dispute letter to one of the agencies (it will alert the others). Clearly summarize what happened and include the police report number. Investigations take about 30 days and if they find you're in the right, they'll remove the account. Oh, and add a fraud alert to your credit files, too, as it can prevent future loans and credit lines from being opened without your authorization.

As for your friend, I do hope she's exonerated. Maybe it was just a failed attempt at being helpful. If not, though, have no mercy. Ditch her. She's dangerous.

See related: Steps to take when a family friend steals your card, Mom opened checking, credit accounts in my name, left a mess

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Updated: 01-19-2019