Submitted by Harold Moldoff
(This is another in a series of public-service reports. The following information was compiled and issued by the staff at the Federal Communications Commission.)
ďI donít remember opening that credit card account. And I certainly didnít buy those items Iím being billed for.Ē
Maybe you never opened that account, but someone else did...someone who used your name and personal information to commit fraud. When an imposter co-opts your name, your Social Security number (SSN), your credit card number, or some other piece of your personal information for their use Ė in short, when someone appropriates your personal information without your knowledge Ė itís a crime.
The biggest problem? You may not know your identityís been stolen until you notice that somethingís amiss: you may get bills for a credit card account you never opened; your credit report may include debts you never knew you had; a billing cycle may pass without your receiving a statement; or you may see charges on your bills that you didnít sign for, didnít authorize, and donít know anything about.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
If youíre a victim of identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nationís consumer protection agency, recommends that you take the following four steps as soon as possible, and keep records of your conversations and copies of all correspondence.
1. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports, and review your reports.
Fraud alerts can help prevent an identity thief from opening any more accounts in your name. Contact the toll-free fraud number of any of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies to place a fraud alert on your credit report. You need to contact only one of the three companies to place an alert. The company you call is required to contact the other two, which will then place an alert on their versions of your report.
* Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; www.equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374- 0241
* Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); www.experian.com; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013
* TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790
Once you place the fraud alert on your file, youíre entitled to order free copies of your credit reports; if you ask, only the last four digits of your SSN will appear on your credit reports. Once you get your credit reports, review them carefully. Look for inquiries from companies you havenít contacted; accounts you didnít open; and debts on your accounts that you canít explain. Check that information like your SSN, address(es), and name or initials are correct. If you find fraudulent or inaccurate information, get it removed. See the FTCís comprehensive identity theft recovery guide, Take Charge: Fighting Back Against Identity Theft, at www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/idtheft/idt04.pdf to learn how. Continue to check your credit reports periodically, especially for the first year after you discover the identity theft, to make sure no new fraudulent activity has occurred.
There are two types of fraud alerts: an initial alert and an extended alert.
* An initial alert stays on your credit report for at least 90 days. You may ask that an initial fraud alert be placed on your credit report if you suspect you have been, or are about to be, a victim of identity theft.
* An initial alert is appropriate if your wallet has been stolen or if youíve been taken in by a ďphishingĒ scam. Phishing occurs when scam artists steal personal information from you by sending email that claims to be from a legitimate company and says you have a problem with your account. When you place an initial fraud alert on your credit report, youíre entitled to one free credit report from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies.
* An extended alert stays on your credit report for seven years. You can have an extended alert placed on your credit report if youíve been a victim of identity theft and you provide the consumer reporting company with an ďidentity theft report.Ē When you place an extended alert on your credit report, youíre entitled to two free credit reports within twelve months, after placing the alert, from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies. In addition, the consumer reporting companies will remove your name from marketing lists for prescreened credit offers for five years unless you ask them to put your name back on the list before then.
To place either of these alerts on your credit report, or to have them removed, you will be required to provide appropriate proof of your identity, which may include your SSN, name, address, and other personal information the consumer reporting company requests.
When a business sees the alert on your credit report, they must verify your identity before issuing you credit. As part of this verification process, the business may try to contact you directly. This may cause some delays if youíre trying to obtain credit. To compensate for possible delays, you may wish to include a cell phone number, where you can be reached easily, in your alert. Remember to keep all contact information in your alert current.
The Identity Theft Report
An identity theft report may have two parts:
Part One is a copy of a report filed with a local, state, or federal law enforcement agency like your local police department, your State Attorney General, the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service, the FTC, or the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. When you file a report, provide as much information as you can about the crime, including anything you know about the dates of the identity theft, the fraudulent accounts opened, and the alleged identity thief.
Part Two of an identity theft report depends on the policies of the consumer reporting company and the information provider (the business that sent the information to the consumer reporting company). They may ask you to provide information or documentation to verify your identity theft in addition to that included in the law enforcement report. They must make their request within 15 days of receiving your law enforcement report, or, if you already have an extended fraud alert on your credit report, the date you submit your request to the credit reporting company for information blocking. The consumer reporting company and the information provider then have 15 more days to work with you to make sure your identity theft report contains everything they need. They are entitled to take five days to review any information you give them. For example, if you give them information 11 days after they request it, they do not have to make a final decision until 16 days after they asked you for that information. If you give them any information after the 15-day deadline, they can reject your identity theft report as incomplete, and you will have to resubmit it with the correct information.
Most federal and state agencies and some local police departments offer only ďautomatedĒ reports Ė a report that does not require a face-to-face meeting with a law enforcement officer. Automated reports may be submitted online, or by telephone or mail. If you have a choice, do not use an automated report. The reason? Itís more difficult for the consumer reporting company or information provider to verify the information. Unless you are asking a consumer reporting company to place an extended fraud alert on your credit report, you probably will have to provide additional information or documentation if you use an automated report.
2. Close the accounts that you know, or believe, have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.
Call and speak with someone in the security or fraud department of each company. Follow up in writing, and include copies (NOT originals) of supporting documents. Itís important to notify credit card companies and banks in writing. Send your letters by certified mail, and request a return receipt so you can document what the company received and when. Keep a file of your correspondence and enclosures.
When you open new accounts, use new Personal Identification Numbers (PINs) and passwords. Avoid using easily available information like your motherís maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.
If the identity thief has made charges or debits to your accounts, or to fraudulently opened accounts, ask the company for the forms to dispute those transactions. Also request the transaction records relating to the identity theft, such as the fraudulent credit application.
Once you have resolved your identity theft dispute with the company, ask for a letter stating that the company has closed the disputed accounts and has discharged the fraudulent debts. This letter can help you if errors relating to this account reappear on your credit report or you are contacted again about the fraudulent debt.
3. File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place.
Then, get a copy of the police report or at the very least, the number of the report. It can help you deal with creditors who need proof of the crime. If the police are reluctant to take your report, ask to file a ďMiscellaneous IncidentsĒ report, or try another jurisdiction, like your state police. You also can check with your state Attorney Generalís office to find out if state law requires the police to take reports for identity theft. Check the Blue Pages of your telephone directory for the phone number or check www.naag.org for a list of state Attorneys General.
4. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
By sharing your identity theft complaint with the FTC, you will provide important information that can help law enforcement officials across the nation track down identity thieves and stop them. The FTC can refer victimsí complaints to other government agencies and companies for further action, as well as investigate companies for violations of laws the agency enforces.
You can file a complaint online at www.consumer.gov/idtheft, by phone at 1-877-IDTHEFT (438-4338); TTY: 1-866-653- 4261, or by mail: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580. Be sure to call the Hotline to update your complaint if you have any additional information or problems.
NEXT, TAKE CONTROL
Although identity thieves can wreak havoc on your personal finances, there are some things you can do to take control of the situation. Hereís how to handle some of the most common forms of identity theft.
If an identity thief has stolen your mail for access to new credit cards, bank and credit card statements, pre-approved credit offers, and tax information or falsified change-of-address forms, (s)he has committed a crime. Report it to your local postal inspector.
If you discover that an identity thief has changed the billing address on an existing credit card account, close the account. When you open a new account, ask that a password be used before any inquiries or changes can be made on the account. Avoid using easily available information like your motherís maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers. Avoid the same information and numbers when you create a Personal Identification Number (PIN).
If you have reason to believe that an identity thief has accessed your bank accounts, checking account, or used your ATM card, close the accounts immediately. When you open new accounts, insist on password-only access. If your checks have been stolen or misused, stop payment. If your ATM card has been lost, stolen, or otherwise compromised, cancel the card and get another with a new PIN.
If an identity thief has established new phone or wireless service in your name and is making unauthorized calls that appear to come from Ė and are billed to Ė your cellular phone, or is using your calling card and PIN, contact your service provider immediately to cancel the account and calling card. Get new accounts and new PINs.
If it appears that someone is using your SSN when applying for a job, get in touch with the Social Security Administration to verify the accuracy of your reported earnings and that your name is reported correctly. Call 1-800-772-1213 to check your Social Security Statement.
If you suspect that your name or SSN is being used by an identity thief to get a driverís license, report it to your Department of Motor Vehicles. Also, if your state uses your SSN as your driverís license number, ask to substitute another number.
Once resolved, most cases of identity theft stay resolved. But occasionally, some victims have recurring problems. To stay on top of the situation, continue to monitor your credit reports and read your financial account statements promptly and carefully. You may want to review your credit reports once every three months in the first year of the theft, and once a year thereafter. Stay alert for other signs of identity theft, like:
* failing to receive bills or other mail. Follow up with creditors if your bills donít arrive on time. A missing bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your account and changed your billing address to cover his tracks.
* receiving credit cards that you didnít apply for.
* being denied credit, or being offered less favorable credit terms, like a high interest rate, for no apparent reason.
* getting calls or letters from debt collectors or businesses about merchandise or services you didnít buy.
GET YOUR CREDIT REPORT
Order a copy of your credit report from the three nationwide consumer reporting companies every year to check on their accuracy and whether they include only those debts and loans youíve incurred. This could be very important if youíre considering a major purchase, such as a house or a car.
An amendment to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires each of the major nationwide consumer reporting companies to provide you with a free copy of your credit reports, at your request, once every 12 months.
To order your free annual report from one or all of the nationwide consumer reporting companies, visit www.annualcreditreport.com, call toll-free 1-877-322-8228, or complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. The form is at the back of this brochure; or you can print it from ftc.gov/credit. Do not contact the three nationwide consumer reporting companies individually. They provide free annual credit reports only through www.annualcreditreport.com, 1-877-322-8228, and Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
For more information, see Your Access to Free Credit Reports at ftc.gov/credit. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, visit ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
Chart Your Course of Action
The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint or to get free information on consumer issues, visit ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
If you have questions or concerns on identity theft, we encourage you to contact the Bureau of Consumer Protection at (603) 271-3641, or Rye Police Department at (603) 964-5522.
Harold Moldoff is a volunteer Consumer Affairs Specialist with the Bureau of Consumer Protection and Antitrust in Concord, N.H., and is a resident of Rye Beach.
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