If you’ve ever made a major purchase like a home or automobile, you should know how important credit reports are to your life. Credit reports are used for much more than just checking your ability to pay a debt. Many service companies (apartments, auto insurance, cable TV, etc.) check your credit reports before they approve your application. Potential employers are likely to check your credit reports before they make the decision to hire you. Credit reports are the single most valuable tool for you to find out if you’ve become the victim of identity theft.
Your credit report score is a number ranging from 330 to 830, calculated based on a complex and high-protected algorithm. The higher your credit score, the better your credit. A good credit report score makes it more likely that your loan or credit application will be approved, and it makes it more likely that you’ll get a favorable interest rate on money borrowed (whether through a loan or credit card). Three companies (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) are the major credit report bureaus that collect and maintain information on your borrowing and repayment history, and they provide reports to your potential creditors upon request. U.S. citizens can by law request one free credit report each year, and you can sign up for a fee to maintain more regular access to your credit reports at all three companies.
What Information Do Credit Reports Contain?
Credit reports contain very detailed information about you including your legal name and any aliases you may have used, current and past addresses, employment history, and date of birth. They also contain details on your credit status that includes:
– Current and past payment status (for example, number of payments over 30, 60, 90 days) on individual loans and credit accounts
– Total number of open and closed accounts, including the credit limit and account balance
– Whether payments on our accounts are current or delinquent
– Public record information like bankruptcy, local court records, liens, judgments, and child support records (This information that can stay in your record for up to 10 years.)
– Specific credit inquires made when we applied for loans or credit accounts in the past (kept very current)
– Detailed account history for each account (kept very current) indicating both on-time and overdue payments
– Credit card debt limit, account balance, and payment history (for active, open, AND closed accounts)
– Your credit score
What is Identity Theft?
Identity theft is a serious crime where someone else uses your personal information (name, social security number, home address, etc.) without your permission to commit fraud or other crimes. The federal government estimates that as many as 9 million American’s identities are stolen each year. Identity thieves may use your credit report score and record to rent an apartment, obtain a credit card, open a telephone account, or get approval for a major loan (like a mortgage).
When the identity thief fails to pay for the goods or services he has obtained, default on payments will show up in your credit report. This not only lowers your credit report score, but the creditors will most likely come to you to pay off the debt. People don’t usually know this is happening unless they spot an unauthorized charge on a credit card or see unknown credit inquiries and accounts on their credit report.
Some people are able to resolve identity theft problems fairly quickly, but others spend years and thousands of dollars trying to restore their good credit report.
How Does Identity Theft Occur and What Can I do to Prevent It?
While there are a wide variety of ways thieves get your personal information and steal your identity, here are some of the most common methods:
1. Dumpster Diving – The identity thief goes through your garbage to find bills or other mail with your personal information. One way to prevent this is to shred any paper with your name, address, or any other personal information. Be very careful about what you throw out. Once it’s in the garbage, it’s an open book.
2. Skimming – Some technologically-saavy identify thieves can steal your credit card numbers while they are being processed at the store. This is particularly easy when you make online purchases. While you can’t protect yourself from all of these attempts, you can use secure sites when entering credit card or bank information on the internet. Though it’s probably not generally approved of, you can easily use false address and telephone numbers to discourage use of your private information. Be sure and check your statements as soon as they come in for unauthorized orders are charges. And if you do much online banking or bill-paying, you can check your accounts regularly online for charges you didn’t make. Be careful and cautious in using ser IDs and passwords to make purchases or apply for credit on internet sites.
3. Phising – An identity thief may pose as a bank or credit card company and ask you to verify personal information. They may do this through an e-mail that looks as if it has come from a trusted business, through a spammed e-mail asking you to follow an innocent-looking link to their not-so-innocent website, or they may catch you off guard with pop-ups or instant messages requesting personal information. They may even use the telephone to get this information from you. NEVER give your personal information out to anyone you don’t know. Before verifying private information with an online service, check to make sure that the company you deal with is really the company that sent the request.
4. Changing your Address – Identity thieves have been known to divert mail by submitting a change of address notice with the post office, thereby diverting your personal credit information to them. This is one area where maintaining and checking your personal information with companies on the internet may allow you to spot such fraudulent attempts.
5. Old-fashioned Theft – Hold on to your wallet, your purse, mail, pre-approved credit offers, checks, or tax information. Once an identity thief has possession of your belongings, they can easily imitate you and abuse your good credit report.
6. Pretexting – Another technique that is difficult for you to control is the practices of obtaining your personal information from the companies you deal with. The identity thief may pretend to be conducting research to get information the establishment would not otherwise divulge. Once he has your personal information, he may call your bank, pretending he’s lost his checkbook or other important information like your investments. Pretexting is against the law, but you may be the last to know when it’s happened.
The single most important thing you can do to keep your own identity safe is to be aware of all activity on your accounts and to make regular reviews of your credit reports. They will contain the information you need to know if someone else is meddling in your business and using your identity for their benefit. The sooner you know something’s going on, the more quickly and effectively you’ll be able to stop it and have your credit reports corrected. Allowing abuse of your credit report to gone on for months or even years can create a serious, costly, time-consuming effort to win back your good reputation.
What Should I Look for on my Credit Report for Evidence of Identity Theft?
Review your credit report carefully as soon as you receive it. Pay close attention to the report of inquiries about your credit. If you have specifically applied for a loan or opened a new account, you should find a credit inquiry from that company. But additional inquiries may indicate that someone else is making applications using your name and information. If you find such inquiries, immediately contact the inquiring creditor and the credit report agency.
Immediately notify the credit reporting agen
if you find errors like a closed account that shows as open or a paid-off balance that appears to be outstanding. You may have to provide documentation to support corrections, and you may have to make the same contact several times to assure the correction is made. But be persistent. Your credit report is a direct reflection of your financial dealings. Creditors and credit report agencies are obligated to report correct information.
Check every credit statement you receive to verify that you know about and approve all charges it contains. Make sure it reflects recent payments, too. Contact the creditor quickly and follow-through to make sure your account information is accurate and up-to-date.
A little common sense and a lot of precaution will help you avoid identity theft and bad credit you didn’t earn. Keep up with your accounts. Review credit reports regularly, and be sure to follow-up when they contain errors. You’ll find the rewards of your effort in your credit report score!