By Rob Thomson
The year 2009 ushers in with it an unprecedented emphasis on personal credit. Economic conditions worldwide may be as difficult as they’ve ever been in most of our lifetimes, and no one can say for sure if we’ve yet hit the bottom. Identity theft is a term we have all become familiar with, and despite the intense focus that has been placed on protecting individual identities, the threat continues to proliferate as identity thieves carry on in refining their methods and developing new and more devious ways to steal identities. If you’ve taken care over the years to cultivate and maintain a strong credit rating, it has never been more valuable than today. Even if it is less than perfect, the last thing you need is someone else wreaking havoc with your credit. The saddest part is that if these criminal minds applied the same level of ingenuity and creativity to legitimate, productive occupations, they would be among the greatest assets to employers!
The most common perceptions of how identity theft happens are still the stolen laptop computer containing a large database of personal information, simple old-fashioned dumpster diving, or email-based phishing scams that sway the unsuspecting into volunteering their own financial account passwords or personal information. Some of these techniques may be within our control to prevent, but some are completely outside our control. Therefore, no one is immune from the potential of having their identity stolen and credit compromised. No matter how many precautions and safety protocols are implemented by companies armed with your personal information, there are that many more criminals out there working to overcome each obstacle.
Is Help Available?
There is no shortage of products and services out there to take your money in exchange for offering varying levels of protection ranging from electronically monitoring your credit to assistance in cleaning up the mess if your identity is breached. The value represented by any given credit protection tool really depends on the individual comfort level you have with keeping tabs on your own information. Monitoring your own credit report on a regular basis is the first key in spotting potential fraudulent activity under your name. Under federal law you are permitted to review your credit report, upon request, once per year from each of the three major national consumer reporting companies (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion).
It is useful to point out a couple of keywords here that can be a bit confusing in the way they apply to accessing credit reports online: “Annual” and “Free”. AnnualCreditReport.com is the official website to help consumers to obtain their free credit report. AnnualCreditReport.com was created by the credit bureaus for the specific purpose of accessing individual free credit reports upon request annually, as required by law. The credit “score” is not part of the free credit report offer, but can be obtained from each credit bureau for an additional one-time fee. There is another website you are probably more familiar with, after having their catchy jingles running through your head for a few hours at a time: FreeCreditReport.com. This website advertises heavily on television and is run by a private company called ConsumerInfo.com. The only way to obtain a “free” credit report from FreeCreditReport.com is to agree to a free trial membership of Triple Advantage (sm) Credit Monitoring. Failure to cancel the trial membership within 9 days results in being billed $14.95 per month on an ongoing basis for the credit monitoring service. This is fine if your intent is to enroll in this service, but some would argue that the trial membership requirement (along with subsequent billing arrangements) is not made as obvious as it should be.
There are many other companies which offer credit monitoring services as well, for varying fees. These services will notify you of inquiries and new accounts opened under your name, and typically send you a monthly report of activity.
You may also purchase “insurance” against identity theft. Depending on the provider, if your credit is harmed by fraudulent activity or identity theft, you would have protection against monetary losses, assistance in rebuilding your credit, and representation in dealing with consumer reporting companies, creditors, and other information sources.
If you feel you can benefit from paying for any credit monitoring or insurance services, compare costs and the different products available to understand exactly what you are getting.
What Can I Do on My Own?
There are several steps an individual can take to help deter and defend against identity theft that cost nothing. Many are simply common sense; the following is a list of things anyone may do at no cost to prevent falling victim to identity theft:
- Shred! Dumpster diving sounds primitive, but it is another of the most common methods used in search of your personal information. Shred any bills, account statements, or other documents that contain personal or account information, or combine your name and address
- Safeguard your Social Security Number – keep your Social Security card (and other personal information) at home in a secure place.
Ask to use other identifiers whenever possible. Don’t print your SSN on your checks.
- Unsolicited phone calls, emails, and mail – never provide personal information in response to unsolicited requests. If you are interested in following up on an unsolicited communication, use an independent resource to find contact information for that organization.
- Review financial accounts and billing statements regularly – contact the issuer of the statement to follow up on charges you do not recognize.
- Password Security – don’t use numbers or phrases that are obvious such as your mother’s maiden name, or your birthdate. While these may be easy for you to remember, they are also more vulnerable in terms of protecting your identity. Choose passwords that are difficult to remember and commit them to memory or document and store them in a secure place at home.
- Inspect your credit report annually – you are entitled to receive one copy of your credit report per year from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to request your free copy from each credit bureau. Even better, create a rotating system by checking one of the three credit reports every 4 months. This will give you 3 opportunities per year to spot inconsistencies or potentially fraudulent activity.
Have You Been a Victim of Identity Theft?
If you have been (or suspect you may have been) a victim of identity theft, there are a couple of steps to take immediately:
- Place a “Fraud Alert” on your credit report. This requires additional steps to be followed by any creditor prior to opening new accounts or making changes to existing accounts in your name. The initial Fraud Alert lasts 90 days and can be renewed upon request. Once you have documented evidence (police report, FTC Identity Theft Affidavit) that identity theft has been perpetrated against you, you may request an extended Fraud Alert, which will remain in effect for seven years. Contacting any one of the three credit bureaus will initiate the Fraud Alert with all three bureaus.
- Experian: (888) 397-3742
- Equifax: (800) 525-6285
- TransUnion: (800) 680-7289
- Close Accounts – close any accounts you did not open, or any existing accounts that were tampered with by contacting the security or fraud departments of each company
- Report the Theft to the Federal Trade Commission
- (877) ID-THEFT (438-4338)
- Mail: Identity Theft Clearinghouse Federal Trade Commission Washington, DC 20580
- File a Police Report – a police report will allow you obtain the extended Fraud Alert, as well as aid with creditors who may require proof of the crime.
Rob Thomson is Communications Manager and Senior Account Executive for Cleveland-based employeescreenIQ, a best practices provider of pre-employment screening services throughout the U.S. and worldwide. Rob can be reached at (800) 235-3954 ext. 438 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.