Cut prescreened offers to reduce theft temptation

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Dear To Her Credit,
I'm writing because I've been receiving a lot of credit card offers with my name twisted in every way possible. I have a Spanish name consisting of a name and two last names, so the card companies will mix it up.

Anyway, I'm moving in about a week, and I'm nervous about these credit card offers landing in the wrong hands. I've called the opt-out hotline and opted out under my legal name. My question is: If someone was to fill one of the applications with the wrong name but correct Social Security number, phone number and so on, would the application go though and would it affect me? I think I'm going to call the opt-out and go through the process with every variation I've seen for of my name! Thank you so much for your time and advice.   -- Monica


Dear Monica,
I'm glad you've opted out of receiving unsolicited credit card offers based on your credit report. Federal law gives you the right to put an end to these offers, which I suggest everyone should do if they haven't already. To put a stop to the mailings, just dial 888-5-OPT-OUT or visit online.

Unfortunately, it can take 30 days for the offers to stop coming. In the meantime, you don't want anyone rifling through your mailbox, looking for these offers or anything else they can find. That's why everyone should have a locking mailbox. This is true even if you're not receiving unsolicited credit card offers in the mail.

Never put outgoing mail in your mailbox. Instead, take it to the post office or a drop box. Or just pay your bills online.

Before you move, go to the post office and have your mail stopped or forwarded to your new address if possible. You can use the post office online forwarding service, but based on my experience and the advice of a postal employee where I live, I prefer to fill out the forms directly at the post office.

My name is often misspelled, too -- some misspellings are more amusing than others. Your credit report is based primarily on your Social Security number and other information, however. If someone managed to open an account in your name, or some variation of it, the misspelled name probably would not make much difference. Your best defense, should someone open an account in your name, is that you would be a victim of fraud. I don't think it's necessary for you to call the opt-out number with every variation of your name. You only have one credit report with each of the big three credit bureaus, with one Social Security number.

If you are really worried, you can request a credit freeze, which prevents identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name. The downside to a freeze is that it can cost you around $30, plus a fee if you want to lift the freeze either temporarily or permanently. An example of when you'd want to lift the freeze is when you authorize a lender or landlord or some other individual or company to pull your credit in exchange for a product (credit card) or service (cellphone service). You need to contact each of the credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) to request the freeze.

Although thieves can and do steal prescreened credit card offers, using them is not as easy as you might think. After they get the offer, the thieves still have to provide your information, including your Social Security number, to apply for the card. If they pass that hurdle, the card still may or may not be approved.

If someone does get a card approved in your name, and you find out when the credit card company tries to collect on any unpaid balance or when you look at your credit report, you must take action immediately. If you suspect fraud, alert one of the major credit bureaus and request an initial 90-day fraud alert for your credit report files. Fraud alerts are free, and require lenders to contact you before opening a new account. File identity theft reports with the FTC and the local police department, and contact the credit card company, advising them that you did not authorize the account. Follow the instructions from the credit card company's fraud department to clear yourself completely from the fraudulent account.

You can defend yourself against identity theft if it happens, but it's a lot easier to try to avoid it. Opting out of credit card offers was a great first step. Follow up by keeping tabs on all your mail -- not just any credit card offers you receive.

Good luck with your move, and continue to take good care of your credit!

See related: Credit reports key to detecting fraud

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Updated: 03-25-2019