9 Min Read | September 15, 2022

10 Signs Your Identity May Have Been Stolen

Identity theft is fairly common, but it may take time to spot it. Here are 10 warning signs of identity theft and what to do if your identity is stolen.

This article contains general information and is not intended to provide information that is specific to American Express products and services. Similar products and services offered by different companies will have different features and you should always read about product details before acquiring any financial product.


The FTC received 1.4 million reports of identity theft in 2021 alone. 

It can take people weeks or even months to realize that their identity has been stolen.

Fortunately, there are a number of telltale signs that your personal information may have been compromised. 

If you think your identity has been stolen, add a fraud alert to your credit report and file an identity theft report. 

Nobody wants to worry about having their identity stolen, but the fact is, identity theft is an unfortunate reality. In 2021 alone, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received 1.4 million reports of identity theft.1 


A criminal who gains access to someone’s personal identifiable information (PII) can use it to empty the victim’s bank account, charge purchases to their credit cards, open new accounts that they’re legally liable for, and even use their health insurance to pay for medical treatment. The fraudster can even file a tax return in the victim’s name and make off with their refund.


But how can you tell if you’re at risk of this happening? Determining that your personal information has been purloined isn’t always easy. One study found that it took between one and two years before 16% of identity theft victims found out about the incident.2 


Fortunately, there are a number of things to watch out for. Here are 10 telltale signs that your identity may have been compromised – and a look at what to do if your identity was stolen.

1. There Are Unfamiliar Charges on Your Credit Card

According to the FTC, credit card fraud is one of the most common types of identity theft, second only to government documents and benefits fraud.3 This sign of identity theft frequently shows up on credit card bills as charges you didn’t make. Even minor discrepancies can indicate fraud, as a thief will often make a small test charge to ensure that the transaction will go through before attempting to run up more substantial charges.


It’s important to carefully monitor your credit card statements and contact your card issuer if you notice any discrepancies, no matter how small.

2. You Discover that You Have a New Credit Card that You Didn’t Apply For

Another credit card–related red flag is if you start receiving bills for a credit card account you never opened. This is a common ploy by crooks who use someone’s PII to apply for credit cards in another’s name. They usually aim to quickly max out the card before the victim realizes what’s going on, and then close the account. 


An effective way to spot this type of fraud is to routinely check your credit reports.

3. You Don’t Recognize a Withdrawal Made from Your Bank Account

It’s not unusual to forget about a small bank withdrawal or fail to remember every time you swiped your debit card and why. But identity thieves often take advantage of this human frailty to slowly draw from bank accounts without the account owner catching on. As with credit card charges, it’s important to not let any questionable transactions slide, no matter how seemingly trivial. 


It’s smart to regularly check your statement and carefully identify each withdrawal that appears. Be sure to contact your bank if you come across any unrecognized purchases or withdrawals.

4. You Apply for Credit and Are Unexpectedly Denied

If you regularly pay your bills on time and in full, and it comes as a surprise that a loan or credit card application is denied, you should promptly investigate why. It’s possible the application was denied because an identity thief has been committing fraudulent activities, like opening or maxing out a credit card in your name. These acts can have a negative impact on your credit score and credit history. 


Again, it’s crucial to keep track of your account statements and routinely check your credit report – and credit score.

5. Your Credit Score Suddenly Changes for Reasons You Can’t Explain

Given the above, a sudden, unexplained credit score drop could be due to a fraudster making use of your PII. Many of the activities that these criminals engage in – opening new credit card accounts, applying for loans, making large purchases, and running up debt – will cause your credit score to decline. 


If there’s a sudden swing in your credit score, you should immediately examine the reason – and determine whether it was due to your own actions, like missing a loan payment or experiencing a hard inquiry after a credit application, or was initiated by somebody else.

6. Debt Collectors Start Calling About Debts that Aren’t Yours

Receiving collection calls about debts that aren’t yours is another identity theft red flag. It’s possible that the thief borrowed money or made purchases in your name and is now attempting to dodge the bill.


But beware: Such calls can also be part of a scam to obtain PII. So, if you’re unfamiliar with the matter the caller is referring to, it’s smart to request documentation in order to look into it further – just don’t give out any personal information over the phone.

7. You Learn About a Data Breach at a Company with Which You Do Business

Stolen data files are akin to modern-day plague. In 2021, there were 1,862 data breaches reported in the U.S., exposing records pertaining to some 294 million people.4 If you learn that an organization you do business with has been compromised, it’s wise to assume that the hackers will sell any acquired information to identity thieves. 


The good news is that there is a variety of measures you can take to minimize the risk, even if information was compromised. Steps include changing your passwords and closing any accounts with the company. You can always open a new account with a different username and password, should you continue to do business with them.

8. You Stop Receiving Monthly Bills or Start Receiving Mail Addressed to Another Person

If bills or other mail stops arriving as it should, it could be because an identity thief has filed a change of address with the senders. The fraudster wants your mail because it frequently contains your PII. If you suspect there’s a problem, call the affected parties and let them know you’re not getting the materials that they’re mailing out. 


If mail continues to arrive but it’s addressed to another person, it could be a sign of what’s known as “synthetic identity theft.” The term refers to a thief creating a composite identity by combining real information from several different people. For example, the imposter might use one person’s address and Social Security number paired with another person’s photo to invent a persona. The scammer can then apply for credit cards and open other accounts in the fake person’s name. One way to counter this is to contact the senders of the mail and let them know that something is amiss.

9. You Start Receiving Bills for Medical Services You Didn’t Use

A thief might also assume another’s identity to gain access to health care services and medications. An imposter might, for instance, visit a doctor and get a prescription while pretending to be someone else. Unfamiliar medical bills are the warning sign to watch out for. Any discrepancies should be addressed quickly, so that you can avoid having to pay for charges the poser has rung up.

10. The IRS Rejects Your Tax Return Because One Was Already Filed in Your Name

Using another’s information, an identity thief might file a fraudulent tax return in order to claim that person’s refund. Fraud like this often isn’t recognized until you file your own return and it gets rejected by the IRS. Tip-offs that this may be happening include notifications that a tax return has been filed on your behalf, or receiving W-2s, along with other tax forms, from companies for which you never worked.


This type of scam typically occurs early in the year, before most people get around to filing their return. The best defense is to file your taxes early, but you can also check on the status of your return by logging into the IRS website and reviewing your account.

What to Do if You Suspect Identity Theft

In the event you spot one of the red flags above, it’s important to act promptly to put an end to any fraudulent activities and prevent further damage. Beyond contacting any affected credit issuer or bank account, the first thing you should do is contact any of the three nationwide credit reporting bureaus, Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion, to place a fraud alert on your credit report, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).5 There’s no need to contact all three; when you place a fraud alert at one bureau, it’s required to notify the others as well. 


There are two types of fraud alerts:

Initial alerts, which are kept on your file for one year. These are effective if you believe you are or are about to become a victim of identity theft. This type of fraud alert requires any creditor who checks your credit report to take additional steps to verify your identity before greenlighting a new credit account or increasing the credit limit of an existing account.

Extended alerts, which are kept on your file for seven years. You can place this type of alert on your credit report after your identity has been stolen and you have filed an identity theft report. Again, this type of alert requires any new creditors contact you to confirm it’s really you making the credit request.


It’s also important to file an identity theft report at IdentityTheft.gov, the Federal Trade Commission’s resource for identity theft victims. They can help you create a personalized recovery plan and walk you through the process.

The Takeaway

Identity theft is a serious crime that affects millions of Americans, yet it can be difficult to spot. To protect themselves, people should become familiar with the telltale warning signs and keep a watchful eye for any indicators that their personal information has been violated. If you think you’re a victim of identity theft, it’s important to put a fraud alert on your credit report and file an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission.

Elliot Kass

Elliot Kass is a journalist who has covered global business and technology from New York, London, and San Francisco for more than 30 years.


All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

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