This past weekend, I joined the estimated 11 million people who last year fell prey to identity thief.
I knew something was up when my wife, as she was listening to what was evidently striking her as a curious voice mail message, asked me mid-message if I had ordered $849.78 worth of merchandise from Kohls; and my response was, “what is Kohls?” So while my wife was listening to the message and probably wondering about my motives for going all-out on Valentine’s Day gifts this year, I was having very naïve thoughts, about phone number mix-ups, or after learning that Kohls is a department store, that some unknown benefactor had bestowed gifts upon us.
After speaking with the Kohls representative, I learned that my full name, date of birth, social security number, current home address and current home telephone was used to open an on-line credit card.
That is the bad news and it was not a very good feeling.
However, ironically, it allowed Kohls to find me very easily. Had it not been for the store flagging the order – new account, large order, shipping address different than billing address; in other words, the identity thieves being greedy – I wouldn’t have known until it was much too late. I was lucky, and am very thankful to the people that recognized this, and followed through on it.
Sadly, most people are not as lucky as I was.
As has been previously discussed on this very blog site, identity theft is a costly, frequent and growing problem in today’s society; and the practical advice given regarding what to do when you discover identify theft is sage. For the proactive among us (not I, at least in this particular arena), many of these same steps can be utilized in an attempt to minimize your exposure once someone has stolen your information and attempted to use it.
1) Check your credit reports. A credit report is a record, both past and current, of your credit activities. Therefore, any attempt by an identify thief to use your personal information to open a credit card account or obtain a loan, would appear as an entry on your credit report.
Equifax, Experian and Trans Union are the three major, nationwide credit reporting agencies. Federal law permits consumers to request a free copy of their credit report every 12 months from each of the big three. Visiting their websites, or sites such as www.annualcreditreport.com or www.freecreditreport.com, will provide guidance on how you can obtain your credit reports. In addition to obtaining copies annually, a consumer may also be able to review certain aspects of your credit report on-line as you wish.
2) Monitor your financial statements. Whether you access to your monthly bank and/or credit card statements on-line, or receive paper copies of them, look closely for transactions that you did not make.
Incorporating these steps into your routine will make for an informed consumer, and one who will be more apt to recognize fraud not long after it has occurred. Prior to this past Saturday, I cannot tell you if I have ever seen my credit report. And if I were a betting man, I would bet that many of you can’t either.
3) Fraud alert. A fraud alert means that creditors will have to follow certain procedures before they open new accounts, or make certain changes to an existing account, in your name. For example, if I had a fraud alert in place, then Kohls would have been required to contact me to alert me that a card was being opened in my name. You can put a fraud alert on your credit by contacting any of the big three agencies:
- Equifax 888-766-0008;
- Trans Union 800-680-7289;
- Experian 888-397-3742
Just follow the automated instructions. This is a free service, and you don’t have to speak to anyone. This will only take about 5 – 10 minutes. Calling only one agency will suffice. You can do the same by visiting any of their websites.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that this initial fraud alert is good for only 90 days.
4) Consider permanent protection. All of the big three agencies offer some form of a permanent fraud alert. It this is not free; so think of it as “credit insurance.” For example, Trans Union charges $9.95/month for a permanent fraud alert and continual credit monitoring.
In addition to the big three, your financial institution might offer a service that includes a permanent fraud alert/credit monitoring. As a result of direct deposit at my bank, available to me free of cost is a subscription to Identity Theft Protection and Credit Monitoring through Equifax, which includes weekly monitoring for any changes in my credit file, and up to $25,000 Identity Fraud Expense Coverage. This feature is one of those contained in the “fine print,” but nonetheless is available. Inquire next time you go to the bank.
If you do not, or cannot, go so far as getting a fraud alert placed on your file, then you really must become diligent at reviewing your credit report and bank/credit card statements.
5) Add extra layers of protection to your bank and/or credit card files. With customer service representatives of most banks and credit cards available 24/7 to assist over the phone, an identity thief with your personal identification information, including your social security number, will have all he needs to get information from these institutions. Consider adding a password, or requiring a question to be asked that only you could answer, to access your account.
If you have been the victim of identity theft, contact your local law enforcement agency. With a police report documenting identity theft, a consumer will be able to receive seven years of fraud free alert protection on their credit file, as opposed to only 90 days. Additionally, a police report will be helpful in cleaning up any problems that might arise down the road due to your identity being stolen. And who knows, maybe the police will be able to track down the “perps” or the people who ultimately tried to use your identity.
Oh, and buy a shredder for your home use.