It’s an unsettling feeling: You check your credit card and discover that someone has purchased a flat-screen TV, home computer, and several meals at restaurants you never even knew existed. Or maybe you check your bank account to discover that someone has withdrawn half of the money it held just yesterday.
Yes, you’ve been the victim of identity theft, a crime that is continues to grow in popularity across the globe. It’s when criminals use your personal information — everything from your birthdate and address to your bank and credit information — to buy products using your credit cards, empty your bank account, and take out loans and new credit in your name.
Once you’ve discovered that you’ve been victimized, though, how long does it take to recover? How long before your credit card and bank accounts are safe and any fraudulent purchases or loans are effectively disputed and cleared?
Not surprisingly, the answer to this is “It depends.” How long it takes to recover from identity theft depends on how much damage criminals cause, how many accounts they’ve hacked, and how many illegal purchases they’ve made.
What affects how long it takes to clean up ID theft?
There are two main variables that help determine how long it will take you to erase the negative impact of identity theft.
1. The time and effort you are willing to put into recovery
You'll play a key role in the process of recovering from identity theft. The quicker you act, the more likely it is that you'll reduce the damage.
The first step is to report your identity theft to the government bodies that track this crime in your country. You can also file a report with your local police department.
Next comes the more time-consuming part: You'll need to contact your creditors and lenders to inform them that someone has stolen your identity. You might need to close your credit card accounts or open a new bank account.
You should also check your credit reports — if your country issues these reports — and monitor your bank and credit accounts for suspicious activity.
2. The type of identity theft
If you spot fraudulent transactions in one of your existing accounts, consider yourself lucky. You'll likely spend less than a day clearing up this type of identity theft. You're also less likely to face long-term financial or legal problems.
But if someone used your identity to take out loans in your name, pay for medical care, apply for a job or rent an apartment? You could spend much more time — perhaps as many as 40 hours or more during several months — to sort out the fraud.
What can I do to speed the process?
The key to getting back to normal after identity theft? Act quickly.
If you notice that someone has used your credit cards to charge costly electronics? Immediately call your credit card provider and file a report with your local police department. You need to cancel your account before thieves run up more fraudulent activity. Waiting to act won't work: This is one problem that won't go away on its own.
Do the same if you receive bills from a lender with which you have never worked. This is a sign that someone has taken out a loan in your name. Call that lender immediately and explain that it wasn’t you who took out the loan.
Don’t ignore strange medical bills, either. Again, a criminal might have used your identity to pay for medical care. Call the medical provider and explain your situation.
Keep careful records, too. If you must close your bank accounts and open new ones, note this and track the date on which you made these changes. Keep track, too, of any new passwords you've created for online accounts. And write down the names of any accounts on which you've noticed fraudulent activity.
Stay vigilant too. This means watching your bank and credit accounts daily to monitor for suspicious purchases or withdrawals. Don’t get complacent: You don’t want to take several weeks off from monitoring your accounts only to find dozens of new fraudulent purchases when you next log on.
"The squeaky wheel gets the oil," said Steven J.J. Weisman, a lawyer and author of “Identity Theft Alert.” "You've got to be your own best advocate or have someone advocate on your behalf. You have to be both motivated and willing to take the time to remedy the fraud."