The first thing you notice is the mailman delivered an official-looking envelope containing a list of charges at the local hospital for a recent visit to the emergency room.

You go over the figures, again, and although not yet alarmed, you know for a fact you have not been to an ER in years.

A second letter is from the Internal Revenue Service alerting you that more than one 1040 tax return has been filed in your name.

And you think, maybe that’s why my credit card was refused and the cashier at the checkout counter of the supermarket politely refused my check to cover the cost of groceries.

Then, you get it — someone has stolen your ID, and full-on panic sets in.

It happens a lot. Nearly 14.5 million Americans were victims of ID theft in 2018, and although there are limits to how much the victim will be on the hook for payment on purchases they didn’t make, unraveling the ID-theft mess is tedious and, on average, costs the victim a minimum of nearly $400 out of pocket.

And it happens a lot here in California, which ranks the second-worst in the nation for stolen identity cases. No. 1 on that list is the District of Columbia, which begs the question — why on Earth would anyone want to steal a politician or lobbyist’s identity?

The personal finance website WalletHub has done its usual solid job of crunching the data, and Californians really take a beating. This state has the highest number of ID-theft complaints per capita, the largest total amount lost to ID theft, and the nation’s worst ID-theft passport protections.

Talking to the victim of such a crime is like watching the latest episode of “American Horror Story.” Believe us when we say, you don’t want to go there.

Most ID-theft victims admit that before the crime is committed they think themselves to be bullet-proof, as in I’d never make that kind of dumb mistake. But in most cases victims really don’t have much choice, when in an average recent year more than 1.5 billion computer data breaches occur nationwide. How many people do you know who don’t have a lot of personal information on some big company’s server? Hackers are generally a step or two ahead of non-criminals trying to protect stored data. It’s a cat-and-mouse game, and consumers are the chosen prey.

Most modern computer apps and software are constantly in flux with new security measures, but if those aren’t enough to keep your ID protected, and you see those dreaded red flags mentioned at the beginning of this commentary, here are some important steps to take:

Quickly notify the Federal Trade Commission and your local police department. Your bank is also tops on the list of people to get in touch with, and these contacts should be made within minutes of the discovery that your identity has been compromised.

Place a freeze on your credit. Trigger a fraud alert on your credit reports. Go through your personal computer and make sure all your security apps are up to date. Check all your bank and credit card statements for charges you didn’t make. Open new credit card and financial accounts.

Most banks offer assistance that will help you ride out the storm, which may take some time. ID theft is like any other crime — it must be thoroughly investigated and vetted.

That’s a lot of work, but it’s all stuff that has to be done. Have a great weekend anyway.


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