You are more likely to notice problems and inconsistencies if you check your credit score on a regular basis – at least once a year and preferably three times a year. Be sure to check your credit rating with each credit bureau, too. If you notice anything odd or anything you don’t recognize (such as a charge account you did not open) report it immediately.

Sometimes, these errors are caused by mistakes made at the credit bureau, but they could be an indication that someone is using your identity. In either case, such mistakes could hurt your credit score. Fixing such errors improves your credit score.

If you think you have been the victim of identity theft, take action at once.

1) Contact the three major credit bureaus and ask to speak to the fraud department. Explain that you have been the victim of identity theft (or believe you may have been) and ask that an “alert” be placed on your file. This will let anyone looking at your report know that you may have been the victim of fraud. It will also mean that you will be alerted any time a lender asks to look at your file – each time a lender does look at your file, it may be an indication that the identity thieves are trying to open a new account in your name.

When the lender sees that the person applying is not you, they will deny the thieves credit and in most cases the criminals will stop trying to access your identity. Most alerts on your file last 90 or 180 days but you can extend this period to several years by asking the credit agencies for an extension of the “fraud alert” in writing.

In some states, you can even ask for a freeze to be placed on your credit score and credit report which will prevent anyone but yourself and those creditors you already have from accessing your file. Any lenders the thieves contact to set up a new account will be refused access and the thieves will not be able to get any more money in your name.

You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report if you have been the victim of identity theft. Be sure to take advantage of this offer so that you can check exactly how your credit has been affected. Dispute those items that are not yours.

2) Call the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at 1-877-438-4338. This is the special hotline that the FTC has set up to help customers deal with fraud and identity theft. You will be able to get up-to-date information about your rights and advice as to what you can do to improve your credit score and keep in safe in the future.

3) Contact the police. Identity theft is a crime and you need to file a police report (be sure to keep a copy of this report) so that you can help the police potentially catch the criminals responsible. Contacting the police will also give you a paper trail and proof that a crime has been committed. Keeping a paper trail of the crime and your response will make it easier for you to repair your credit if it has been damaged by identity thieves.

4) Contact your creditors or any creditors that the identity thieves have opened an account with. Ask to speak to the security department and explain your predicament. You may need to have your accounts closed or at least your passwords changed to protect yourself.

You may also need to fill out a fraud affidavit to state that a crime has been committed – be sure to keep a copy of this form for your records. The security team of the creditors should be able to advise you as to what you can do. Be sure to note down who you contacted and when so that you have records of the steps you have taken to deal with the crime.

If you have been the victim of identity theft and you are deeply in debt to creditors you never contacted, you will not be held responsible for the charges – but you will have to prove that you have been the victim of identity theft, which is tricky since the thieves are using your name and claiming to be you.

It is a frustrating experience because lenders will want to be paid and you will want to avoid paying for charges you did not run up. Being persistent and keeping good proof that you have been the victim of a crime will help to clear your credit score. In the meantime, however, you will be faced with a much lower credit rating than you deserve and you may have to put off larger purchases that may require a loan.