A few years ago, SDXB and I learned separately that each of our credit reports said we had lived at an address neither of us had ever heard of, in Tempe, Arizona. Although neither of us was harmed financially, it indicated a type of identity theft known as “application fraud” or “true name fraud.”
It took about a year to get the fake address off my credit records. Once it was expunged, I pretty much forgot about it…until a couple of weeks ago. That was when Costco announced it didn’t have my current address and my membership renewal was overdue. When I went to customer service to pay up, the CSR happened to show me her computer monitor, and what should I discover but that my home address was listed as SDXB’s former address and my business address is now at that same fake address in Tempe!
The appearance of an unfamiliar address on your credit report is one of many possible signs of identity theft. Other warning signs are missing bills, unexplained charges to your accounts, the existence of accounts you didn’t open, denial of credit for no apparent reason, and dunning calls from bill collectors for items you didn’t purchase.
Undoing a mess some crook has made is very difficult. It can take years to persuade creditors and credit reporting agencies that you’ve been a victim of identity theft, and the crime can haunt you for a long time. Thieves have so many ways to steal your private information, many of which you have no control over, that you really can’t prevent it. But you can take a few steps to reduce your risk. I think of them in terms of three strategies:
You’re entitled to free annual credit reports from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and Transunion. Rather than having to go through the hassle of contacting each of these agencies separately, it’s now possible to order credit reports through a single source, annualcreditreport.com. Instead of ordering all three reports at once, take advantage of the federal law by revisiting annualcreditreport.com once every four months, so that you can spread out reports from the three agencies over the course of a year. This will allow you to monitor your credit reports steadily. Watch for any unexplained activity or accounts you don’t recognize.
Also, before you pay a credit card bill, remember to review the statement carefully. Check financial accounts and billing statements each month, looking for charges you didn’t make.
Limit the number of credit cards you carry around. Keep no more than one or two cards in your wallet.
Pay in cash at restaurants and other establishments where you can’t watch what an employee does with your card after you present it for payment. This eliminates the use of a skimmer, a handheld device thieves use to swipe cards for later download into their own computers.
Don’t use debit cards. If you must, memorize your PIN; don’t carry a note with your PIN in your wallet or purse. Avoid using your birthdate, numbers of your address, sequential numbers, or four digits of your Social Security number as PINs. Never use a debit card for online shopping.
Photocopy your credit and debit cards, front and back, and keep the photocopies in a safe place. This makes it easy to contact issuers if cards are stolen.
Don’t allow anyone to write your credit card number on a check.
Always take credit card receipts with you. Carry them in your wallet or purse, and shred them before discarding.
Carry outgoing snail mail to a USPS post box or postal station. Don’t leave it in your mailbox to be picked up by the postal carrier. To protect financial information sent to you through the mails, install a locking mailbox.
Avoid giving out your Social Security number. Don’t carry a Social Security card or Medicare card on your person. You (or your parents) can photocopy a Medicare card, trim it down to wallet size, and cut out the last four digits of the SSN that appears on it. Take the original the first time you see a doctor; otherwise, store it in a safe place at home.
Opt out of marketing lists for the three credit bureaus, limiting the number of free credit offers sent to you in the mail. When you do get such offers, always shred them or scissor them into tiny pieces before throwing them in the trash. Also register your telephone number with the National Do Not Call List, to further reduce offers from hustlers.
And of course, never respond to phishing e-mails. Remember, a legitimate bank or creditor will not ask you for your account number or Social Security number.
3. Fight back
At the first sign of identity fraud, notifiy all three credit bureaus and place a fraud alert on your account. This is good for 90 days. This step entitles you to a free credit report; get one from each agency and review all three reports carefully.
Report the theft or fraudulent activity to the police in writing, using an identity theft report.
Once you have filed an identity theft report with law enforcement agencies, use that and your evidence of identity theft to extend the credit bureaus’ fraud alert for seven years.
Report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission, using the police report number you got when you filed a police report.
Learn what your rights as an identity theft victim are.
If an identity thief has opened new accounts in your name, contact these creditors immediately. Federal law allows you to block businesses from reporting fraudulent activity to credit reporting agencies; the sample dispute letter available here will come in handy for that purpose.
If the thief has used existing accounts that belong to you, report the fraudulent activity to the creditors. Arrange to close the accounts and have new accounts with new account numbers issused to you.
So…what am I going to do about the Costco situation?
Well, we have a fair idea where this came from: only one person could connect SDXB and me in quite that way (the phony entry showed my legal first name, which I don’t use socially; few people who knew the two of us as a couple know my real name). At the time the spurious address popped up in our credit reports, this person was engaged in an extramarital affair. We figured she and the boyfriend had forged driver’s licenses in our names so they could rent themselves a love nest.
More recently, the same someone, who has been in deep financial trouble for quite some time, likely ran out of cash about the time her Costco membership lapsed. So she dug out the fake ID, presented herself as me, and said she’d lost her card. If she went in and asked for a new card in my name, she might have been asked for an address. SDXB’s old street address was at the same number as my new street address; the only difference is that one house is on Erewhon Road and the other is on Erewhon Place. So if she gave his old address as “hers”/mine, it would be credible.
I guess what I will do is cancel my Costco membership. Then we’ll have M’hijito buy a new membership in his name, with me on his account as a secondary card holder. This will be a hassle, because they’ll have to issue a new Costco American Express card with a new account number.
But since she hasn’t done anything (so far) that’s cost me any money or damaged my credit rating, maybe I’ll just let it ride and keep a close eye on the credit reports. Who cares if she gets into Costco for free?