Some 41 million Americans have been victims of identity theft, says a recent survey from Bankrate.com. Last September, it was my turn.
My wife and I were on vacation in England. A woman from the fraud department of Capital One called, asking if I’d applied for a second Capital One credit card. I had not. Capital One had turned down the application, she told me in a soothing voice. “But whoever tried to open this account has your Social Security number and date of birth,” she said. The credit application raised a red flag because the imposter listed his (actually, my) address as Springfield, Ill. I live in Washington, D.C.
She told me to contact the three major credit bureaus, review my reports and consider putting a fraud alert on my accounts. I already knew the drill, because Kiplinger’s gives the same advice to all victims of ID theft.
Ten days later, back at my desk, I went to www.annualcreditreport.com to get my free credit reports and make sure that no one had opened any accounts in my name. Damn. Someone had beaten me to the site, because each credit bureau in turn said that I had already claimed my free report for the year. (I had not.)
I decided to pay for my reports. Despite the fraud alerts on my account, Experian and Equifax were more than happy to take my $10 (the cost varies by state). (TransUnion, to its credit, refused to acknowledge me without more verification.)
I downloaded and scanned the two reports. Each had the Capital One inquiry, as well as one from Discover, but no fraudulent accounts or new addresses — yet. I called Discover and was assured that the application would be denied.
Scammers like the one who targeted me try to steal your personal information and apply for credit in your name, but at a different address. If that application slips through the cracks and is approved, it gets easier and easier to open more accounts in your name, and soon your credit is a bloody mess.
I called Eva Velasquez of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center (888-400-5530; (www.idtheftcenter.org) to review my strategy. You can call the center to talk with an adviser; you’ll also find tons of information online.
Velasquez confirmed that it made sense to freeze my accounts with each of the three credit bureaus, which would prevent new creditors from viewing my credit report or score (you have to unfreeze them when you apply for credit). Victims of ID theft can freeze their accounts free, but anyone can do it by paying a fee — typically $10, although it varies by state.
Mark Solheim is editor of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.