No, we’re not reminiscing about the 80’s hit by Rockwell…this is more sinister. From hacking computer systems to trapping codes at ATM machines, identity theft is rampant and can have a devastating impact on your life. It can affect your ability to buy a car or a home, it can prevent you from getting a job, and there have been (albeit rare) cases of innocent people being arrested for crimes committed by an identity thief. Keeping a close eye on credit reports is an excellent way to detect fraudulent activity, and credit monitoring can be a helpful tool to do just that.
The three credit reporting agencies – TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian – are required by the federal government to provide an annual copy of your credit report at no charge. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com to order it and monitor your own credit by reviewing it carefully to ensure all information is accurate. Doing this once a year is the first step toward thwarting thieves.
The next step would be to hire a company to monitor the credit reports real time and inform you, probably via email, of any changes. Most notices would regard changes in account balances on credit cards or an inquiry for a line of credit at a retail store. In an identity theft scenario though, a thief might use your social security number, stolen while dumpster diving at a local bank, to apply for a new credit card. The timely credit monitoring service notification of this fraudulent application for credit could mean the difference between a small hassle and full-blown, financially crippling identity theft.
Sadly though, not all credit monitoring services are created equal. The ones managed by the three credit reporting agencies are typically pretty good, and the timeliness of the information is excellent – which is the most important element in the detection of fraud. Some of the second tier services though report outdated information since they have to pay for the data and retrieve it periodically from the primary agencies. Another potential problem with the second tier services is that they may offer a free credit report (mimicking the government-mandated service), but once the consumer accepts the free report, they are unwittingly enrolled in a potentially expensive service. What a sneaky and underhanded thing to do – it sure doesn’t make us want to trust them with our financial information.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a program called “Deter, Detect, Defend: Avoid ID Theft.” It is a good program, especially in its education about how to protect personal information (and thereby deter ID theft). Combine this with credit monitoring by a high quality provider and good financial decision-making, and we will stop letting the identity thieves bully us.