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Identity and Finance

Managing Credit Reports

Sometimes the first indication you have of identity theft is when it begins to damage your credit.  Experts advise us to look at our credit reports once a year.  The individual credit reporting agencies are listed below, with links and phone numbers:

Trans Union: 800-680-7289
Equifax: 800-525-6285
Experian: 888-EXPERIAN

The only dot-com page endorsed by the FTC to get your free annual credit report is www.annualcreditreport.com.  There are scams centered around this, so a few things to keep in mind:
  • You are entitled to one free credit report per year, not your credit score.  Reporting agencies will often use the free credit report to offer to sell your credit score to you. You do not need your credit score to detect fraud. 
  • Third parties sometimes make money by stepping through this process for you.  You need not spend money to get one report per year.  If you get a second one within 12 months, you will have to pay for the second and so on.

Reporting and Coping With Identity Theft

The IRS has tips for Identity Protection for taxpayers.

The Federal Trade Commission has an entire web page for reporting and coping with ID theft.  Particularly, they have instructions on placing a credit freeze on your credit report; this is a tool which prevents identity thieves from opening new accounts or taking new loans in your name.  It does not prevent them from tampering with existing accounts, however.

(Author note:  I include a link to LifeLock for completeness; I know some who use it and swear by it. I do not know of anyone who has had a bad experience with LifeLock, and yet I can't bring myself to trust it. Their operators have a more dramatic history than they let on in their commercials. A quick read of their wikipedia entry is worthwhile. )

Many other credit score protection services exist, and some may be offered by a bank you already use. Whether you use a credit protection service or not, please always balance your account statements regularly, and check your credit report annually.

Bank Accounts and Credit Cards

Credit and Debit cards should have customer service phone numbers printed on the back of them. Please write these phone numbers down somewhere and keep them at home where you can find them. If these cards are ever stolen, you'll have the phone numbers handy to report them and get them cancelled and replaced. These numbers should also be on the monthly statement.

Please balance your statements each month.  Unexplained transactions are often the first indicator of identity theft.  Credit cards offer liability protection, but you have a limited time to report discrepancies.

Links:

  • Spotting credit card skimmers from Stack Exchange
  • Another list of tips from about.com, with link back to Brian Krebs for illustrations.
  • Update 7/7/2014: another Krebs article on skimmer miniaturization.  These reports are mostly European; but the technology will find its way here too.

The best practice is to use a credit card for everything except withdrawing pocket money from an ATM. With a credit card, your liability for theft is limited to no more than $50; and if you promptly report the theft, it may be lower. With a debit card, the bank has no obligation to reimburse your loss -- so if the thieves aren't caught, you're out that much money. 

Don't forget the Kids

Did you know?  A Social Security Number with no history can be very valuable to people whose own credit is damaged, or who need to hide their identity from the government.  Identity thieves have opened credit card and bank accounts, taken loans, and even rented apartments with identity information stolen from minors.  You can get in-depth information with detailed preventive measures, at the Federal Trade Commission website, and at TransUnion's web site.

Wait, What?

Under Credit Reports, we said that credit damage can be the first indication of identity theft.  Then under Bank Accounts, we said the same thing about Bank and Credit card statements.  What gives?  Well, both are true.  If your date of birth and social security number are stolen, the thief might open a credit card account with a different mailing address for the bill; this will keep you from finding out the theft until the unpaid bill gets noted on your credit report.  If all that was stolen was the credit card itself, then you'll get the bill and spot the problem there.

ID Theft in the News

PBS Article by Phil McKenna. His identity was stolen; here's how it all happened, and how he coped with it.