How to detect card fraud, identity theft

By  |  Published: April 19, 2017

Opening Credits
Columnist Erica 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,
Whom do I contact to see if anyone else has been doing things that may affect my credit?  – Jamie

Answer

Dear Jamie,
Some nonprofit credit counseling agencies have people on staff who will walk you through possible or definite credit fraud. Check out the member agencies associated with the Financial Counseling Association of America or the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Such guidance is not always necessary, though. You can play chief investigator. It’s not hard. Just get your credit reports and start reading. TransUnion, Experian and Equifax create credit reports from the data provided them, and if anything is amiss, you should see it listed.

Access your reports by logging on to AnnualCreditReport.com and click the option to obtain your credit reports from all three agencies. These reports are available to consumers at no charge once per year. The merged report will give you a complete record of your own credit activity, as well as what others might be doing in your name. Scan it thoroughly, from top to bottom.

Credit reports are composed of four distinct sections, and each area can hold clues to fraudulent activity.

  1. Identity. This will include your Social Security number, date of birth, your various addresses, and places of employment. If you see something strange, such as a peculiar mailing address, it could be a sign of identity theft.
  2. Trade lines. Here is a listing of your past and present credit accounts. Creditors supply the credit bureaus with such information as when an account was opened, how much you currently owe and your monthly payment pattern. If someone has succeeded in opening a credit card or taking out a loan in your name, it will be evident. Also check what the credit reports list as your credit card balances for any inaccuracies, as that could be an indication that somebody is charging with your card. (You would discover that from your credit card statements too, so check them and report any fraudulent activity to you card issuers).
  3. Public records. Bankruptcies, liens, civil judgments and the like will be in this section. Look for any invalid legal action against you.
  4. Inquiries. There are two types of inquiries that appear on a credit report: soft and hard. The former is nothing more than a notice that a business has accessed your credit history to determine if you might be a suitable customer. You won’t find evidence of fraud with a soft inquiry – it’s the “hard” ones you need to review, since they come about when a person actively pursues a credit product. At that stage the creditor has permission to pull your detailed credit history from the agencies, and the result is a hard inquiry placed on your credit reports. Read over this area very carefully! You’ll see if someone other than you has tried to open a credit card or take out a loan in your name in the past 24 months.

I hope you will find a perfectly correct credit report. However, if you do see anything that's inaccurate, dispute that information immediately with the credit reporting agencies and contact the financial institution to report the fraud. Fraudulent activity, such as bloated balances, excess credit cards, accounts that are delinquent or have been sent to collections, many hard inquiries, and legal action will negatively impact your credit rating.

Also, take steps to protect your credit against future abuses. Add a fraud alert to your credit reports. With a fraud alert, credit issuers will have to go to greater lengths to ensure the applicant is you before granting a new credit product or increasing your credit limit. You can place an initial 90-day alert on your credit file without a police report, but one that lasts for seven years does require a police report. You don’t need to know the names of the people who might be “doing things to affect your credit,” so call the police. Identity theft and credit card fraud are crimes and should be reported.

See related: Familar fraud: When families and friends steal your identity, 10 warning signs of identity theft

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Updated: 10-24-2017

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