By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com

Maybe it’s a call from your credit card company alerting you to a flurry of unusual charges. Or a denied car loan application. Perhaps you suddenly start getting phone calls from a collection agency. Or the motor vehicle department sends you a notice saying your license has been revoked. There’s any number of ways you can discover the bad news: You’re a victim of identity theft. Now what?

Next comes A mind-numbing headache, and the hangover can last for months or even years. In fact, victims should expect to spend about 175 hours on the paperwork necessary to clean up the fallout from an identity theft. The exercise can challenge even the most patient paper-pusher.

But there’s a lot you can do that will enhance your chances at full recovery and limit the complications.

First and foremost is skipping as quickly as possible through the Elisabeth Kubler Ross stages of denial, anger and bargaining, and getting right to acceptance. You need to accept that even though someone else committed the crime, and a variety of companies are harboring bad data about you, it’s up to you to fix the problem. That’s not right, it’s just reality.

“Everything falls on you to clean up your credit report, for example,” said Jim Doyle, president of Internet Crimes Inc. You’ve got to order copies from all three credit agencies (see box), then write to any company which has placed erroneous information there. If you suddenly find you have a criminal record, thanks to your imposter, that’s also your problem.

So the first thing a victim must do is “think like a police officer or a lawyer,” according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. Anything might turn into evidence — phone bills, credit card applications, even notes from telephone calls. From day one, you must think about building the case you will need to present to creditors and credit bureaus, so don’t discard anything. Invest in some three-ring binders, a hole puncher, and a notebook. Take detailed notes of every ID theft related phone call, including name, time and date. An excellent summary of how to organize your files is available at Privacyrights.org

The credit concerns
There are a myriad of ways an ID theft can turn your digital identity into cash. Frequently, victims find imposters to open some kind of credit account in their name — applying for new credit cards, car loans, even home equity loans. The best defense is to place a “fraud alert” on your credit file. That makes new creditors call for verification before they approve a new line of credit. The threat of phone verification is often effective in stopping an ID thief. But fraud watches expire, so make sure to insist that the tag stays on your account.

Generally, banks have been understanding about forgiving debts accumulated by imposters, but only when the victim presents appropriate paperwork. The sooner the better; outstanding or unresolved ID theft-related debt can limit your ability to obtain a loan or credit card in the future.

Close suspect accounts
Most victims find with the right telephone calls, they can successfully insulate themselves against losing money. But delays can be costly. Federal and state laws vary on consumer liability for stolen accounts. For example, reporting a stolen ATM card within two days limits liability to $50; after that, consumers are responsible for $500. Call your bank, your credit card companies and other financial institutions, and ask if there has been suspicious activity on your accounts. That includes some accounts you might not consider, such as Internet service providers, or other telecommunications companies — particularly cell phones.

Credit card firms make the disputed charge process relatively painless, but time limitations exist there, too.

And you must re-check these accounts, religiously spying your monthly bills. Identity thieves can wait months before acting on the information they have. Even if the original thief is arrested, there’s no telling if your information was sold to someone else.

Always file a police report
As soon as you’ve stopped any possible financial bleeding — hopefully within hours — go to your local police and insist on filing a report. Sometimes police will say, “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do,” and discourage you from filing. Do it anyway. The report will be vital if you have to dispute unauthorized charges to your accounts.

It’s terribly unlikely that your individual report will lead to the arrest of a criminal. But while you may not feel particularly inspired to civic duty at the time, the report might eventually help catch a thief, or even a ring of thieves. If there is a trend of similar crimes, your report will help police piece the case together.

For that reason, you should also file your case with the Federal Trade Commission, which, under the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998, is the federal agency responsible for collecting ID theft data. The FTC puts all the complaints — 161,000 during the last year — into its Consumer Sentinel database, which is used by law enforcement around the country.

Other things to do
There are a number of other steps to take that might head off other problems in the future — a comprehensive list is available at PrivacyRights.org. Generally, these include other paperwork steps like investigating possible driver’s license misuse, and obtaining a new license, with a new number, if necessary.

One step that’s often suggested is changing your social security number. But Jay Foley, director of consumer and victim services for the Identity Theft Resource Center, said that’s generally not a good idea. “Because of what you lose. For example, if you have a college degree, say good-bye,” Foley said. “Say goodbye to everything you have that references your Social Security Number. Your employment history. Your professional licenses, your military service.”

And it’s likely that won’t provide the relief the victim expects anyway, he said. Criminal records or motor vehicle records may link the old and new social security numbers together, he said. Inevitably, when you apply for a job, you will be tempted to give the employer your old number to prove your employment history. At that point, the pock-marked record will be there to haunt you anyway, so you might as well deal with it head on.

Nevertheless, the Social Security Administration will provide a new number if a victim proves their number is being misused. More information is available at the agency’s Web site.

But the better plan is to simply take all that carefully tracked paperwork and embark on a dogged letter writing campaign, says Judith Collins, director of the Michigan State University ID Theft Partnerships in Prevention organization.

“They need to have created a trail of the offenses and then need to contact every single person (and company) that’s affected, and go right to the top,” she said. If you have a criminal record, for example, send letters to the court, the district attorney’s office, the secretary of state, and the state attorney general’s office. “And send it registered mail.”

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

Data: Latest rates in the US

Home equity rates View rates in your area
Home equity type Today +/- Chart
$30K HELOC FICO 4.71%
$30K home equity loan FICO 5.26%
$75K home equity loan FICO 4.70%
Credit card rates View more rates
Card type Today +/- Last Week
Low Interest Cards 13.42%
13.42%
Cash Back Cards 17.94%
17.94%
Rewards Cards 17.14%
17.14%
Source: Bankrate.com