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What should one do in the case of identity theft?

Identity thieves stole $16 billion from 15 million Americans in 2016, according to the Insurance Information Institute. That is an average loss of approximately $1,000 to each bilked customer.

Learning that your identity may have been stolen is scary, a reader reports. She is usually very careful, but found herself at risk of identity theft after she received an email that her online accounts had been locked, but she could unlock them by answering a few questions. The questions asked for personal information, she answered, and by the time she realized that something was wrong with the situation, she had provided enough information to put herself at risk from the scammers.

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She wants to know how to figure out whether scammers have stolen her identity and what she can do to protect herself.

Warning signs of identity theft listed by the Federal Trade Commission include: withdrawals from your bank account that you did not make, failure to receive bills you usually get, merchants refusing your checks, debt collectors calling you about debts you did not incur, charges on your credit card that you did not make or medical providers billing you for services you did not receive.

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A Maryland resident who knows or reasonably suspects that his or her identity has been stolen may report the crime to local law enforcement agencies — in municipalities, city police; in the county, the sheriff's department. The agency is required by state law to file a report of the crime and give the victim a copy.

Whether the thieves are caught, the report can be helpful to victims who must deal with collection agencies or other businesses dunning them for expenses the thieves incurred in their names.

Identity thieves who are caught and found guilty face a maximum fine of $5,000, up to 18 months in jail, or both, if the victim's loss is less than $500; a maximum fine of $25,000, up to five years in jail, or both, if the loss exceeds $500.

The Maryland Attorney General's office advises those who know their identity has been stolen to place a fraud alert on their credit report with a major credit reporting agency: Experian, Equifax or Trans Union. A credit reporting agency receiving an identity theft report is required to notify the other agencies.

A fraud alert lasts only 90 days, so a victim may have to renew it if the identity theft issue is not resolved within that time frame. After making the initial report, a victim can get a copy of his or her credit report to look for fraudulently opened accounts or accounts in bad standing.

Victims should also notify the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov/idtheft or by calling 877-438-4338.

Maryland victims can also get an identity theft passport. The passport, according to the Attorney General's Office website, "may help you resolve financial issues caused by identity theft, and help prevent a wrongful arrest if a thief uses your personal information during the commission of a crime." For more information, visit www.oag.state.md.us/idtheft/IDTpassport.htm.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Reach her with questions or feedback at 410-840-2354 or denglelaw@gmail.com. Her column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times.

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