If you have a good credit rating, you could become the target of an "identity thief." All it takes is your name and Social Security number and someone can steal your identity, ruin your credit, and disrupt your peace of mind.
How does a criminal gain access to your vital statistics?
Methods run the gamut from stealing your wallet to buying credit-card sales receipts from corrupt merchants to so-called "dumpsite divers" rifling through your trash for discarded bank statements. Some thieves even divert mail by using the United States Postal Service's temporary change-of-address form, which can give them access to credit solicitations and pre-approved credit offers.
How can you protect yourself?
Be sure to keep all credit-card receipts and compare them against your monthly bill. Resolve errors, although you have only limited liability if the card has been stolen or there has been fraudulent use. Be willing to testify in court if police catch the scoundrel.
And be skeptical of any explanation by a bank or other credit-card processor that billing "errors" were caused by the so-called Y2K "bug," brought about by computer glitches as we head into a new century.
Personal checks can pose another threat, especially if the store clerk writes your Social Security or telephone number on it. Use other forms of identity.
If you've been the victim of credit fraud, you will probably receive a notice from your bank, credit union, or credit-card company, at which time you may be instructed to contact the fraud division of the three major reporting agencies to have a "fraud alert" placed on your files. Therefore, whenever anyone requests information about your credit history, you will first be notified. If you suspect credit fraud, or if you simply would like a copy of your credit report, you may contact the credit reporting agencies. In some cases there is a nominal fee for a copy of your credit report. For specific instructions on reporting credit fraud or to order a copy of your credit report, contact the following:
Equifax: 1-800-525-6285 fraud division; www.equifax.com.
Experian: 1-800-301-7195; www.experian.com.
Trans Union: 1-800-916-8800 to order a credit report; 1-800-680-7289 fraud division; www.transunion.com.
Credit Fraud Precautions
Some precautions, as suggested by the editors of MoneyWorld magazine:
· Having an unlisted telephone number would eliminate one source of information about you, but at least consider removing your address from your listing.
· Stop pre-approved credit offers by blocking the major credit-card agencies from selling your name to lenders. (More than 2 million will be sold this year, up from about 100,000 a decade ago.) If you receive unwanted offers, tear them up before discarding or consider the purchase of a shredder.
· Keep a record of all credit-card account numbers, expiration dates, the amount of your credit line, and the telephone numbers for fraud and customer-service departments. Close all unused credit-card accounts.
· At the first sign of fraud, contact the appropriate company or agency. Keep a record of everyone you talk to, every document you send or receive, and the amount of time spent trying to resolve the problem.
· Head off further breaches of your identity. At your bank, ask about the status of existing accounts, recent change-of-address requests, and the opening of new accounts in your name. Ditto for your stockbroker.
· Call and write the big three credit-reporting agencies' fraud departments. Request a copy of your credit report and ask the companies to remove the fraudulent information and put a "fraud alert" on your file.
· Complain to Consumer Response Center, Fair Credit Reporting Act, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, D.C. 20580 if you have trouble getting action.