Todd Ossenfort has been chief operating officer for Pioneer Credit Counseling since 1998. He writes our weekly “The Credit Guy” column, answering reader questions about credit counseling and debt issues.
Dear Credit Guy,
Recently I received a preapproved credit card offer addressed to my home address, but in the name of a very distant family member who lives in another city. After calling the credit card company, I was assured there was no account holder by the family member’s name. Should I suspect identity fraud, maybe through another credit card company or something similar? Do I need to be worried, and what should I do from here? Thank you! — Molly
I understand your concern. Unfortunately, credit card fraud is common among family members. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen every year. If you believe that this particular family member had access, at some point, to your personal information (Social Security number, date of birth, etc.), then you should certainly check right away to see if your identity was stolen. Even if you do not believe your family member is involved, it is wise to make sure no one else has used your information to open fraudulent credit accounts.
Start by checking your credit reports. I recommend you get free copies of your reports from the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) at AnnualCreditReport.com every year. If you order online, you will have access to the reports instantaneously. Review your reports for any accounts that you do not recognize as belonging to you.
Should you find accounts that you did not open, you will need to contact the credit bureau that is reporting the account and file a fraud alert. The alert will be added to your credit report and future lenders viewing your credit report will know to verify your identity before granting new credit. An initial fraud alert will remain on your credit report for 90 days, which is usually long enough to get identity theft issues under control. However, you do have the option to include an extended credit freeze that remains on your account for seven years.
Next, contact the creditor who opened the fraudulent account — contact information will be included on your credit report — and let them know that the account is a fraud. Each creditor will have its own process for handling fraudulent accounts. Keep records of who you speak with, the time and date, and what they have requested from you. Also, ask what you can expect from the creditor.
Keep in mind that once the account is reported as fraudulent, the creditor will investigate. The investigation could lead to criminal charges for the person who opened the account. If that person is a relative, you will need to be prepared for the consequences to your relationship.
Review your credit reports several months after you believe the accounts have been cleared up to assure no other fraudulent accounts have surfaced and that the fraudulent accounts have been removed.
For more information regarding identity theft, how to prevent it and what to do if it takes place, I recommend visiting the FTC’s website.
Take care of your credit!
See related:When a family member steals your identity, All in the family: Parents stealing kids’ identities, When a family member steals your identity, Put your credit report on ice with a credit freeze
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