How to clear fraudulent card accounts from credit reports

Opening Credits columnist Eric Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for CreditCards.com.

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Question Dear Opening Credits,
I have credit cards in my name that I didn’t apply for. I believe a family member did it. I was under 18 at the time these cards were issued. I don’t want to press charges against this person, but I want to clear up the credit card debt. It’s been 12 years since the cards have been in my name, and this person not only used my Social Security number, but also my middle name – not my first name. What can I do? – Annie

Answer

Dear Annie,
You may have an easy way out of this mess, and it has to do with your age. If you were a minor at the time the cards were taken out in your name, your date of birth alone should be your get-out-of-debt card. Unless you were an emancipated minor, you were not legally able to sign credit card agreements before the age of 18.

To resolve this issue, though, you must follow these steps:

1. Notify the police.
What happened was a crime, and you need to report it. If you know the person who did this to you, I urge you to overcome your hesitancy and file a police report. Odds are nothing will happen to that individual, since these types of crimes are typically considered very low priority.

If you are not 100 percent sure who the culprit is, file the police report without naming a suspect. Having a police report file number will help your fraud case when disputing the cards. Also be sure to mention that your Social Security number was compromised.

2. Call each card issuer’s fraud department.
Present the police report number (you should receive it after you file the report) to each card issuer’s fraud department. Point out the age you were when the credit card was granted. In short order, the issuer will suspend and cancel the account. When the matter is closed (in your favor), it will stop reporting the account to the credit reporting agencies.

The only thing that concerns me is that the card has been active for 12 years. For this reason, you may have to go to extra lengths to prove that you didn’t take advantage of the situation and collude with the thief. For example, if the statements were routed to the fraudster’s separate address and you just discovered this matter, you look good.

However, if you live at the same address where the statements are mailed, and it appears that you could have charged with the card, the issuers may balk, especially if there is an overdue debt on the account. Be firm. If you had absolutely no idea that the accounts existed until now, your name was illegally used to obtain it, and not a penny of that balance is yours, you should be victorious.

3. Work on your credit reports.
After the credit card issuers have absolved you of liability, wait a month or two and check your credit reports on annualcreditreport.com. The cards should not appear. If they are still there, dispute them with one of the credit reporting agencies (they will notify the other two credit bureaus).

Read your credit reports thoroughly to make sure that no other accounts have been opened in your name. This is certainly a possibility because whoever did this has quite a bit of your personal and financial information. If you spot more fraudulent accounts, dispute each one individually.

Add an extended fraud alert to your file, too, which requires the police report number, and lasts for seven years. Once in place, anyone accessing your credit history will have to take extra precautions to make sure you are the person who is applying for the loan, credit card or another product.

To lock down your credit report even tighter, you can freeze it. By doing so, no company will be able to view your credit history without your permission.

4. Deal with the Social Security number issue.
If the person used your Social Security number to obtain credit cards or other form of credit, a utility account, cellular service, or anything else, contact the Federal Trade Commission online to report it, or call 1-877-IDTHEFT.

You may also want to reach out to the IRS. Some thieves use a stolen Social Security number to file a fraudulent tax return so they can walk away with the victim’s refund. If you think this is a possibility, contact the IRS so you can avert this problem before it happens.

Finally, I’m so sorry you have to go through all of this. When the perpetrator is someone you know, the betrayal is profound.

See related: If mom opens card in your name, it’s family fraud, 10 warning signs of ID theft, Emancipated minors get freedom, but don’t count on a credit card

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Updated: 11-23-2017