Protecting your credit report from identity theft
If you have been the victim of identity theft you can immediately take action by placing a fraud alert on your credit report. This will prevent an identity thief from opening any more accounts in your name. You can also take more severe action by placing a credit freeze on your report if your state law has provided this remedy.
There are two types of fraud alerts: an initial alert and an extended alert. An initial fraud 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 you’ve been taken in by a “phishing” scam; that is when your identification or account information has been obtained by internet fraud. With an initial fraud alert, potential creditors must use what the law refers to as “reasonable policies and procedures” to verify your identity before issuing credit in your name. However, the steps potential creditors take to verify your identity may not always alert them that the applicant is not you.
An extended fraud alert stays on your credit report for seven years. You can have an extended alert placed on your credit report if you’ve been a victim of identity theft and you provide the consumer reporting company with an Identity Theft Report. With an extended fraud alert, potential creditors must actually contact you, or meet with you in person, before they issue you credit. When you place an extended alert on your credit report, the consumer reporting companies will remove your name from marketing lists for pre-screened credit offers for five years, unless you ask them to put your name back on the list before then. You are also entitled to two free credit reports within twelve months from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies.
As mentioned, depending on the type of fraud alert you place, potential creditors must either contact you or take reasonable steps to verify your identity. This may cause some delays if you’re trying to obtain credit. To compensate for possible delays, you may wish to include a cell phone number in your alert, so that you can be reached easily. Remember to keep all contact information in your alert current.
While a fraud alert can help keep an identity thief from opening new accounts in your name, it’s not a solution for all types of identity theft. It will not protect you from an identity thief using your existing credit cards or other accounts. It also will not protect you from an identity thief opening new accounts in your name that do not require a credit check. Examples of these accounts are telephone, cell phone or bank accounts. A fraud alert, however, can be extremely useful in stopping identity theft that involves opening a new line of credit.
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.
Many states have laws that let consumers “freeze” their credit. With this measure a consumer can restrict access to their credit report. If you place a credit freeze, potential creditors and other third parties will not be able to get access to your credit report unless you temporarily lift the freeze. This means that it’s unlikely that an identity thief would be able to open a new account in your name. Placing a credit freeze does not affect your credit score.
Credit freeze laws vary from state to state. In some states, anyone can freeze their credit file, while in other states, only identity theft victims can. The cost of placing, temporarily lifting and removing a credit freeze also varies. Many states make credit freezes free for identity theft victims, while other states have consumers pay a fee – typically $10. It’s also important to know that these costs are for each of the credit reporting agencies. If you want to freeze your credit, it would mean placing the freeze with each of the three credit reporting agencies, and paying the fee to each one.
If you place a credit freeze on your report, companies that you do business with will still have access to your credit report, such as your mortgage, credit card or cell phone companies. So will collection agencies that are working for one of those companies. Additionally, in some states, potential employers, insurance companies, landlords, and other non-creditors can still get access to your credit report with a credit freeze in place. If you want to apply for a loan or credit card, or otherwise need to give someone access to your credit report and that person is not covered by an exception to the credit freeze law, you would need to temporarily lift the credit freeze.