Identify theft is a criminal offense. It is a serious crime that can wreak havoc with your finances, your credit, and even your reputation. It can take time, money, and patience to resolve, but it is essential to act quickly to limit the damage and set things straight.  This article will explain Washington State identity theft law, give tips to guide you through the recovery process if you suspect your identity has been stolen, and provide strategies for reducing your risk of this happening to you.

Identity Theft Law in Washington State (RCW 9.35.020):

  •  If a person knowingly obtains, possesses, uses, or transfers someone’s personal identification or financial information with the intent to commit crime, or to aid or abet any crime, they are committing the crime of identity theft. This includes identifying information for anyone, living or dead.
  • If the value of goods, services, credit, or money obtained is less than $1,500 or is not otherwise amounting to first-degree identity theft, it is considered second-degree identity theft, a Class C felony punishable according to 9A.20RCW.
  •  Identity theft resulting in obtaining more than $1,500 in value of goods, services, credit, or money constitutes first-degree identity theft and is a Class B felony offense, punishable according to 9A.20RCW.
  • A person who violates this section is liable for civil damages of $1,000 or actual damages, whichever is greater, including costs to repair the victim’s credit record, and reasonable attorneys’ fees as determined by the court.
  •  See RCW 9.35.020 for additional detail about this statute

What to do if this happens to you:

Once identity thieves have your personal information, they can run up charges on your credit cards, open new accounts, drain your bank account, or even get medical treatment on your health insurance.

You may suspect that someone has stolen your information for some of the following reasons:

  • Unexplained withdrawals from your bank account
  • Merchants refuse your checks
  • Debt collectors call you about debts you cannot explain
  • You receive medical bills for services you didn’t use
  • Unfamiliar charge on your credit report
  • IRS notifies you more than 1 tax return was filed in your name
  • Data breach at a place you do business

If your identity is stolen, you must act quickly to mitigate the damage than could be done. The following are some of the recommended actions to take:

  • Monitor your bank accounts and credit cards for unusual activity. You may want to take additional steps, depending on unauthorized activity, including closing accounts and/or disputing charges.
  • Place a Fraud Alert on your credit file. You can do this by contacting one of the 3 nationwide credit reporting companies that keep records of credit history (EquifaxExperianTransUnion). This makes it harder for an identity thief to open more accounts in your name
  • Order your Credit Reports. Review these reports very carefully to determine if there are unauthorized charges, accounts, or errors that need to be disputed.
  • Create an Identity Theft Report. This involves submitting a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)  in the form of an Identity Theft Affidavit and filing a police report. An Identity Theft Report can help you deal with creditors, debt collectors, and businesses that may have opened accounts under your name.
  • If you are victim of Medical Identity Theft, as in an identity thief receiving medical treatment in your name, you need to request your medical records, report any errors to your health care provider, and notify your insurer and all 3 credit reporting companies.

Reduce your risk:

Identity thieves are resourceful and cannot always be stopped, but it is wise to take precautions to secure your information to make it harder for them and reduce the risk of this happening to you.  Please review these tips for decreasing your chances of becoming an identity theft victim:

  • Be careful with your mail, promptly removing mail from your mailbox and requesting a vacation hold on your mail if you are going to be gone awhile.
  • Keep your financial documents and records locked up in a safe place at home. Limit what you carry when you go out.
  • Protect your medical information (destroy prescription labels and don’t share your health plan information)
  • Read your account and billing statements, looking for any unusual charges. Correct any errors as soon as possible
  • Review your credit reports regularly. You have the right to get a free copy of your credit report every 12 months. It is recommended you order and review your credit reports more frequently than that – 3 times per year. If you are entering into divorce proceedings it is advised you pull and review your report.
  • Shred sensitive documents (receipts, checks, bank statements, insurance forms, etc)
  • Secure your Social Security Number. Share only when necessary.
  • Beware of impersonators online or on the phone.
  • Protect your computer and mobile device. Use anti-virus software and don’t open files or download programs sent from unknown addresses.
  • Keep passwords private.
  • Don’t overshare on social networking sites.

Legal Representation:

If you are a victim of Identity Theft, it can be extremely emotional, upsetting, and overwhelming. If you are facing criminal prosecution for Identity Theft, you will need to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. These are significant charges and you should not try to tackle them without experienced counsel to advise you appropriately and advocate on your behalf.