Last week, we talked about the toll that ID theft can take on your personal finances. A criminal organization steals your info – whether by data breach or through something as simple as a bogus email phishing attack – and your credit history can take a devastating blow. The fraudsters can open bank accounts, take out loans, or rack up massive credit card debt – all in your good name.
Given the hacks we’ve seen in recent years, there are few people who haven’t had their identity stolen. While you, as an individual, can’t stop those breaches against some of the nation’s biggest retailers and financial institutions, there is something very simple that you CAN do: check your credit history.
There are three main credit reporting agencies in the U.S.: TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. Together, they have set up a system through which you can request one free credit report each year from each of their agencies. You have the choice of getting all three at once or spreading them out over the course of the year.
To request your free reports, go to www.annualcreditreport.com.
Your report will include any names you have used, your addresses, how much you owe your creditors, whether you pay on time, whether you’ve been sued and whether you’ve filed for bankruptcy. Each report collects slightly different information from different sources, so it is important to check all three – whether at the same time or spread out over time.
Why is it important to make sure each of these reports is accurate? This may be your first indicator that someone is committing fraud in your name. In addition, these credit agencies sell this information to creditors, employers, insurance companies and other businesses. The information in this record may make a difference in whether you get a mortgage, new car loan, new credit card, get a job or pass a rental screening.
If you find fraudulent information – or something you dispute as being inaccurate – you need to document your request for review in writing to the credit agency. You should also send a dispute letter to the creditor who reported the item in question.
Also, a warning about look-a-like websites. www.annualcreditreport.com is the ONLY official, free option to receive your report from the three main agencies. Some for-profit sites will offer you a free report or credit monitoring initially, but then they will automatically start charging you down the road. In other cases, fraudsters have set up websites to look legit – but their only purpose is to gather your personally identifiable information, or PII, when you go to request your report.
If you have been victimized by an online scam or any other cyber fraud, be sure to report it to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov or call your local FBI office.