Vol. 13, No. 2 • May 2009

Preventing and Responding to Identity Theft

Adapted from Life in the Hood: Adulthood 101, a manual written for recipients of Education Training Vouchers by Tina Raheem, Scholarship Director, Orphan Foundation of America. To order Life in the Hood, go to <http://orphan.org/fileadmin/pdf/OFA_Life_In_Hood_Sell_Sheet.pdf>

Identity theft happens when somebody else uses your credit card, social security number, name and address, or any other personal information to buy something without your knowledge or approval. Foster youth are particularly vulnerable. As they’re bounced from placement to placement their private information bounces with them, from hand to hand to hand. It can be easy for someone else to put YOUR name on THEIR electric bill. If they don’t pay the bill, years later when you want to rent an apartment you may find that your credit was in ruins before you ever had a charge card.

What can you do about identity theft? Well, if it happened when you were a child, you can’t prevent it. But you can find out if it happened, and there are organizations that can help you fix it.

  1. Check your credit at <www.annualcreditreport.com>. There are three main credit reporting agencies, and by law you can get your credit report from each of them, once a year, for FREE.
  2. See if there is anything in your report that doesn’t make sense. For example, it might say you have a charge card with an overdue balance or that you took out a car loan or didn’t pay your utility bill in 1992, but you were three years old in 1992.
  3. If you find something “fishy,” call the credit reporting company RIGHT AWAY (Equifax 800/525-6285; Experian 888/397-3742; Trans Union 800/680-7289).
  4. Call the Federal Trade Commission (877/438-4338) for advice.
  5. If you need help doing any of this, call Victim’s Assistance at the Identity Theft Resource Center (858/693-7935).

When you call about identity theft, TAKE NOTES. Write down the date, the telephone number and agency, the name of the person you spoke with, and an outline of the conversation, including any case or file numbers, outcomes, and next steps.

Preventing Identity Fraud
If your credit report is clean, here are some things you can do to prevent identity fraud in the future. First, think SCAM:

S – Shhhhhh. Don’t tell ANYONE your personal information (social security number, address, debit or credit card information, or your mother’s maiden name) unless you are ABSOLUTELY sure it is for a legitimate reason, such as when YOU have called your bank or credit card with questions. Your bank or credit card will never call or e-mail YOU and ask for that information. If they do, hang up or delete the e-mail! And NEVER give anyone your pin numbers, student ID, or user names/passwords.

C – Check your financial information EVERY month, including your bank statement (to make sure you recognize every deposit and withdrawal) and your credit card statement (to make sure you recognize every charge).

A – Ask about your credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com three times a year. Review it carefully!

M – Maintain careful records. Keep all of your bank statements, credit card statements, and other bills and receipts for at least one year, so you can go back to verify your financial history if you notice something wrong.

Other good policies to follow:

  • If you move frequently, get a Post Office box so that your bank statements and bills always go to the same place.
  • TEAR UP credit card offers you receive in the mail to ensure no one else completes them.
  • Photocopy the important papers you keep in your wallet—driver’s license, debit/credit cards, insurance cards—so that if your wallet is stolen you know exactly what you lost and have the account numbers to report the theft.
  • Make copies of any other important papers, such as your birth certificate, marriage license, passport, etc. and keep them in a file at home. You also can make PDF files and burn them onto a CD.

The Identity Theft Resource Center (http://www.idtheftcenter.org/) has a lot more information. If you have any concern that you might be a victim of this kind of fraud, check them out.

Credit Reports and Improving Your Credit

Good credit is determined by your credit report. Your credit report details whether you pay your bills on time, if you’ve ever filed for bankruptcy, and even whether you’ve ever been sued or arrested. It is the basis on which a company will offer you a line of credit such as a credit card, car, home or personal loan, or even a lease on an apartment. There are three nationwide credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) which sell information to creditors such as banks and loan companies, as well as to employers, landlords, and insurers. If you’ve been turned down for an apartment or denied a credit card, chances are your credit rating is less than satisfactory.

You can access your free credit report once a year from each of the three credit bureaus. In other words, you can get your credit report from Equifax once, Experian once, and TransUnion once. Go to www.annualcreditreport.com for an immediate report online, or call 877-322-8228 to have your report mailed to you. You will need to give your name, address, social security number, and date of birth and may have to provide some personal information in order to verify your identity. It is a very good idea to get a free report once every four months to keep track of your credit.

If your credit record isn’t good, don’t despair. There are no quick and painless ways to correct a credit problem (information on late payments can stay on your record for seven years), but you can rebuild your credit. Here’s how to start:

Review your credit report. Check for errors! According to a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, 70% of credit reports have errors of some kind and 29% contain serious errors such as false delinquencies and judgments that don’t belong to the consumer. Get these errors corrected immediately.

Pay as much as you can on unpaid credit accounts. If you can’t pay in full, paying something changes the account from delinquent to current. Make at least the minimum monthly payment or more if possible.

Start to build up positive credit information. Consider a secured credit card (where you pay a certain amount up front in case you are delinquent on your payment).

Close any old accounts which you still have open and are not using.

Do NOT go to a company which promises to repair your debt for a fee – you are only paying for something which, with time and effort, you can do yourself.

 

Copyright 2009 Jordan Institute for Families