Protecting Yourself From Fraud – Michael Bazzell

During this holiday season. The Rotary eClub of Arizona wants to remind you to pay attention to your surroundings and monitor your debit and credit cards. If a criminal wants to get your money quickly and easily, he or she will target your debit and credit cards. Before the popularity of the internet, this required physical access to your wallet or purse. A victim would know right away that a card should be cancelled and the damage would be minimal if caught early. A criminal would risk capture by attempting charges on the cards in person. Today, possession of your cards is not necessary. The internet has created a new avenue to obtain and spend the money in your accounts. This may occur without any indication of problems on your end. This chapter will present the tools that you need to protect your credit and make you practically invulnerable to identity theft.

Free Credit Report

Before I discuss the techniques that will protect you, you should take a good look at your current credit report. This will identify all of your current open accounts and may identify any problems or fraudulent activity. There are several websites that offer a free credit report. Most of these will try to convince you to sign up for premium offers and never offer an actual free credit report. The only official government supported and truly free credit report website is at annualcreditreport.com. This website allows you to view your credit report, without any fee, once yearly from each of the three credit bureaus. This means that you actually can get three free credit reports every year. Instead of viewing all three reports at the same time, create a schedule to spread out the viewings. I recommend the following.

ü In January, connect to annualcreditreport.com and request a free report from Equifax. ü In May, request a free report from Experian.
ü In September, request a free report from TransUnion.

These months can be adjusted to the current time of the year. The important element is that you are continuously viewing your credit report throughout the year. The process for viewing your report varies by state. Annualcreditreport.com will explain every step. When you receive your report, pay close attention to the following areas:

Figure 5.01: The inquiries section of a credit report. It will identify any companies requesting a copy of your report. This will usually be creditors verifying your details.

 

Figure 5.02: The non-impact section of a credit report. These inquires include requests from employers, promotional offers, and your own requests to check your credit.

Figure 5.03: The address information of a credit report. This will identify any addresses used for current and previous lines of credit. Report unfamiliar addresses immediately.

Figure 5.04: The open accounts section of a credit report. It will identify any unused open accounts and a contact number to close the account if desired.

Figure 5.05: The closed accounts section of a credit report. It will verify that an account was successfully closed.

I recommend that you consider closing any unused open accounts. The only exception would be whichever account has been opened the longest. If you have an unused account that has been open for ten years without any problems, you may consider leaving that account open. This will help your credit score, whereas closing your oldest account could decrease your score. Closing other unused accounts will provide fewer options for fraud. If you possess a credit line with a local bank that is never used, and that bank experiences an intrusion into their system, you may be victimized for weeks without knowing. The fewer open accounts that you have will result in fewer opportunities for financial fraud. Personally, my priority would be to close any specialty store accounts that you may have opened because of a sales discount, a free promotional item, or a pushy sales person.

Analyze your entire credit report for any errors. Occasional typos are common, and should not create panic. When I first viewed my own report, I discovered that someone else was using my social security number. I was immediately concerned and began to contact the credit bureaus. I quickly discovered that the “suspect” was someone with a SSN almost identical to mine, and someone had mistyped a number at some point. This will happen, and it is not an indication of fraud. You should focus on the open accounts. If you see that you possess a line of credit at a bank that you have never heard of, then you should be concerned. If you discover anything suspicious, contact the credit bureau that reported the potential fraud. They all have a fraud division that will assist with identifying the problem and resolving it. Each situation will be unique and one vague example here would not necessarily apply to you. You should also contact any financial institution that hosts the fraudulent account and notify them of the issue. You will be mailed paperwork to validate that the account was not opened by you. The process of closing the account will move quickly after that.

If you do discover fraud on your credit report, I recommend that you immediately request your report from the other two credit bureaus. This may identify additional fraud that was not

listed on the first bureau’s report. If you do not discover fraud, I suggest that you wait a few months before you view the next report. This allows you to continuously monitor your credit throughout the year. Keeping an eye on your credit report is one of the most important tips that I mention in my public speaking appearances.

Credit Opt-Out

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the consumer credit reporting companies are permitted to include your name on lists used by creditors or insurers to make firm offers of credit or insurance that are not initiated by you. These are the pre-approved credit and insurance offers that you receive in the mail. They are often physically stolen by street criminals and submitted to receive a credit card in your name at their address. The FCRA also provides you the right to opt-out, which prevents consumer credit reporting companies from providing your credit file information to businesses.

Through the website optoutprescreen.com, you may request to opt-out from receiving such offers for five years. If you want to opt-out permanently, you can print a form that you must send through postal mail. If you choose to opt-out, you will no longer be included in offer lists provided by consumer credit reporting companies. The process is easy.

  • Navigate to optoutprescreen.com and click the button at the bottom of the page labeled “Click Here to Opt-In or Opt-Out”. On the next page, choose the second option of “Electronic Opt-Out for Five Years”
  • Complete the online form and click “Confirm”. You will receive an immediate confirmation. This action will need to be repeated every five years.Fraud Alert

    A fraud alert is an action that you can take to protect your identity from being used by criminals for financial gain. You can place an initial fraud alert on your credit report if you think that you have been the victim of identity theft. This is a good idea if you see any suspicious activity on your credit report. It can also be used if your wallet or purse has been stolen, if you’ve been a victim of a security breach, or even if you revealed too much personal information online or over the telephone. A fraud alert means that lenders must take extra precautions to verify your identity before granting credit in your name.

    Anyone can place a 90-day initial fraud alert in their credit report. This alert can be renewed in 90-day intervals indefinitely. To request the alert, you need to contact only one of the three credit bureaus. The chosen bureau will notify the others. The following links forward to the online forms to complete to request a fraud alert. While you only need to complete one of these, I recommend completing all three if you are a victim of identity theft. In my experience, Experian provides the smoothest process. If you decide to pursue a credit freeze, which will be discussed in a moment, do not complete the fraud alert process.

Equifax: https://www.alerts.equifax.com
Experian: http://experian.com/fraud/center.html                                                          TransUnion: http://transunion.com/fraud

The alert should be activated within 24 hours. You should receive a confirmation in the mail within a few days. If you do not receive this confirmation within one week, place another alert. When activated, your name will be removed from all pre-approved credit and insurance offers for two years. Instructions for removing the fraud alert will be included with the documentation sent to you via postal mail.

You can also obtain an extended fraud alert which stays on your credit report for seven years. To qualify, you must provide a police report or other official record showing that you’ve been the victim of identity theft. You will receive two free credit reports from each of the credit bureaus every 12 months in addition to the free copies anyone can obtain yearly.

Fraud alerts are not foolproof. A lender can see the fraud alert when a query into your credit is conducted for the purpose of opening a new line of credit. When the lender observes this alert, the lender should contact you by phone to verify that you really want to open a new account. If you are not reachable by phone, the credit account should not be activated. However, a lender is not required by law to contact you even if you have fraud alert in place. Many criminals that open new fraudulent accounts will seek friends and family that are associated with lending companies to process the request. When this happens, the fraud alert is useless. Most criminals will not attempt to open an account with a reputable institution that would acknowledge the fraud alert and take extra precautions. If you would like to have real credit protection, you should consider a credit freeze.

Credit Freeze

During my training sessions, people often ask about paid services such as Lifelock and Identity Guard. They want to know how effective they are at protecting a person’s identity.

These services can be very effective, but you pay quite a premium for that protection. A more effective solution is a credit freeze. This service is easy, usually free, and reversible.

A credit freeze, also known as a credit report freeze, credit report lock down, credit lock down, credit lock, or a security freeze, allows an individual to control how a U.S. consumer reporting agency is able to sell his or her data. This applies to the three big credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). The credit freeze locks the data at the consumer reporting agency until an individual gives permission for the release of the data.

Basically, if your information stored by the three credit reporting bureaus is not available, no institution will allow the creation of a new account with your identity. This means no credit cards, bank accounts, or loans will be approved. In many cases if someone tries to use your identity but cannot open any new services, they will find someone else to exploit. We can think of no better motivation to freeze your credit than knowing that no one can open new lines of credit in your name. This does NOT affect your current accounts or credit score.

A credit freeze also provides a great layer of privacy protection. If companies cannot gain access to your credit report, they cannot identify you as a pre-approved credit recipient. This will eliminate many offers mailed to your home. This will also remove you from various databases identifying you as a good credit card candidate. Credit freezes are extremely easy today thanks to State laws that mandate the credit bureaus cooperation. This section will walk you through the process.

The first step will determine whether your credit freeze will cost you any money. The fee for the freeze is $10 for each of the three bureaus. While this is well worth the protection, most states have a law that entitles identity theft victims a waiver of this fee.

Currently, each of the three credit bureaus voluntarily waives this fee for victims of identity theft. A large portion of this book’s audience has had some type of fraudulent financial activity. This may be an unlawful charge to a debit or credit card or something more serious such as someone opening an account in your name. If you have had any fraudulent charges or activity, contact your local police to obtain a police report. Request a copy of the completed report including the case number.

Complete three packets that will be sent by certified mail. One will go to each of the three credit bureaus. Each packet will include the following:

ü A letter requesting the credit freeze including the following information:

Official Request for Freeze
Full Name
Full Address
Social Security Number / Date of Birth

A copy of your police report if you have one.
A recent pay stub or utility bill.
A photocopy of your driver’s license or state identification.

Send this packet to each of the following credit bureaus:

Equifax Security Freeze PO Box 105788 Atlanta, GA 30348

Experian Security Freeze PO Box 9554 Allen, TX 75013

TransUnion Fraud Victim Assistance P.O. Box 2000 Chester, PA 19022-2000

If you do not have a police report and do not want the $10 fee waived, you can complete the entire process online at the EACH following three sites:

Equifax: http://www.freeze.equifax.com
Experian: experian.com/freeze/center.html ü TransUnion: freeze.transunion.com

The following is an example of a TransUnion credit freeze request.

TransUnion
Fraud Victim Assistance Department P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19022-2000

January 1, 2016

To whom it may concern,

Please accept this letter as an official request for a Security Freeze on my TransUnion credit file. Per your instructions, I have included a photocopy of my driver’s license and recent pay documentation. Below are my details.

John Patrick Doe 1234 Main Street Chicago, IL 61234 321-54-9876 December 1, 1980

I further request waiver of any fees due to my recent status as an identity theft victim in the State of Illinois. I have attached a photocopy of my police report.

Within a few weeks, sometimes sooner, you will receive a package from each of the bureaus confirming your credit freeze. This confirmation will include a PIN number that you need to keep. This number will be required if you ever want to temporarily or permanently reverse the credit freeze. After sending our requests via certified mail, and receiving the confirmation of delivery, we received a response from TransUnion within three days, Equifax within four days, and Experian within eight days.

If you want to reverse the credit freeze, you can do so online at the previously mentioned websites. A temporary freeze would be done to establish new credit such as a credit card or loan. Be sure to generate this temporary reversal prior to the loan request, otherwise your loan may be denied. A permanent reversal will completely stop the freeze, and your account will be back to normal.

Beginning in 2015, I started also recommending establishing a credit freeze with Innovis. If you have had a credit freeze in place for at least three years, this may not be mandatory. However, our opinion is that we should all take advantage of all protections provided to us. The method is the same and you should submit your letter to the following address. You can

also establish the freeze online for free at http://www.innovis.com/personal/securityFreeze.

Innovis Consumer Assistance PO Box 26 Pittsburgh, PA 15230-0026

Unless you are constantly opening new lines of credit or using your credit to purchase real estate often, I highly recommend a credit freeze. It is the most effective way of stopping people from using your identity for financial gain. Lately, people are reporting that their under-age children are becoming identity theft victims. A freeze could be applied to them as well. Generating a credit freeze on your child now will protect them until you request removal. This could protect your children from the temptation in high school and college to open new lines of credit.

After your credit freeze is in place with all three credit bureaus, you may want to test the system. While conducting research for this book, I decided to test my own security. The following are details of what I had to go through while attempting to obtain a new credit card.

May 27, 2013: I navigated to a website that was offering a great rewards point bonus for new members of a specific travel credit card. It was a very legitimate company that I have held credit with in the past. Even though I had a credit freeze in place, I thought that this company may use our previous relationship as a way around the freeze. This seemed like the best company to test my freeze. I completed the online application and was told that I would soon receive an answer via postal mail.

May 29, 2013: I received a letter from the credit card company stating that they could not offer me a card. They advised that I had a credit freeze in place and that I would need to remove the freeze before my application could be processed. They identified TransUnion as the credit bureau they ran my credit through. The freeze worked. A credit freeze would stop the majority of criminals from accessing your credit. In order to continue the test, I contacted TransUnion and conducted a temporary credit freeze removal over the telephone. It was an automated system and I only had to provide the PIN code mentioned earlier.

May 30, 2013: I contacted the credit card company via telephone and advised them that the credit freeze had been removed and that I would like to submit my application again. I was placed on hold for a few minutes. The representative stated that she could still not offer me the card. While the freeze had been removed, there was still an extended alert on my credit file and there was not a telephone number for me attached to the account for verification. Basically, TransUnion automatically added this extended alert to provide another layer of protection when a freeze was ordered due to fraud. The representative advised that I should

contact TransUnion. I contacted them and was told that I should add a valid telephone number to my credit profile. Before I was allowed to do this, I had to answer four security questions about historical credit accounts, addresses, vehicles, and employers. After successfully answering these questions, I was able to add my cellular number to my account. I was told the changes should take place within 24 hours.

May 31, 2013: I contacted the credit card company and advised of my actions taken. She stated that she would not be able to pull another copy of my credit for 14 days. This was policy and there was no way to work around this due to the fraud protection rules in place.

June 15, 2013: I contacted the credit card company again and requested a new pull of my credit report. The credit freeze was still temporarily disabled until the end of the month. The new credit request was successful, and the representative could see the extended alert and a telephone number for contact. She placed me on hold while she dialed the telephone number on file. My cellular phone rang and she verified with me that I approved of the new credit request. I approved and switched back to the other line with her.

June 19, 2013: My new credit card arrived.

This was an interesting experience. I had never tested the system with the intent of actually receiving the card. I had occasionally completed credit card and loan offers in the past for the purpose of testing the freeze, but I was always denied later in writing. This enforces the need to have a current telephone number on file for all three credit bureaus. This entire process took just over two weeks. Any criminal trying to open an account in my name would have moved on to someone else. This same chain of events would have happened if I were trying to buy a vehicle, obtain a personal loan, or purchase real estate. Even routine tasks such as turning on electricity to a home or ordering satellite television service require access to your credit report. A credit freeze will stop practically any new account openings in your name. While I became frustrated at the delay in obtaining this card, I was impressed at the diligence of the credit card company to make sure I really was the right person. My credit is now frozen again and I am protected at the highest level.

Author: Aaron Fritz

Joined Rotary in 1999. Past President of the Highlands Ranch Rotary Club, Charter Member of the Rotary Club of Castle Pines, Past President of the Rotary eClub of Arizona, and current Assistant Governor for District 5490. Multiple Paul Harris Fellow. 2nd Generation Rotarian.