Has your personal financial information fallen into the wrong hands? If so, you can take steps to reduce at least some of the harm it can cause. You have the legal right to attach a fraud alert to your credit file, which warns credit issuers that your personal data has been – or may have been – illegally accessed. Before issuing a new loan or line of credit, creditors are advised to verify your identity and gain your approval.
Think of a credit report fraud alert as a yield sign. Because the creditor has been notified to confirm your identity thoroughly, it can hinder the thief’s ability to open an account in your name. When you file the alert, you may also receive a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies.
If you choose the Extended Alert that lasts seven years, you won’t be receiving credit pre-approval letters for a long time. Once filed, your name will be removed from credit marketing lists (of course this can also be a disadvantage if you do want all the credit offers). If you choose the Initial Alert that lasts 90-180 days, you don’t receive this service.
The power of a fraud alert is limited to new accounts only – it is ineffective if the thief uses your existing lines of credit. It also doesn’t guarantee that new accounts won’t be opened since your information isn’t blocked from view like it would be in a security freeze. Fraud alerts depend on the adherence of creditors and thus aren’t foolproof. Fraud alerts may also delay your own credit and loan applications, since the creditor has to jump through hoops to ensure you are who you say you are. You could lose out on those special time-sensitive “one-day only” deals.
How to add the alert
As soon as you know or even suspect that your personal information has been in the wrong hands, call the credit bureaus’ fraud departments to activate the process:
Fraud Victim Assistance Department
P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19022-2000
Consumer Fraud Division
P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374
Experian’s National Consumer Assistance
P.O. Box 2104
Allen, TX 75013
You will have to provide them with all of your identifying information as well as a phone number where you can be reached.
You do not need to call each of the bureaus to place separate alerts. Data is shared, so your request will be automatically extended to the other bureaus. The same is true of removing the alerts, which can be done easily at the website of one of the bureaus.
Credit freezes – the extra step
In addition to a fraud alert, you may also be able to freeze your credit file. A credit freeze is intended as a more extreme form of data protection. Your credit file information is locked from others and only you have the key to opening it. By providing the personal identification number (PIN) to the credit bureaus, you can have your file unfrozen, get the credit you apply for, and then re-freeze the file. Since you are the only one who knows your PIN, only you can apply for credit or other financial products in your name. If you can prove you are a victim of identity theft, the freezes are usually free – otherwise there is a fee to both place and remove them.
The damage that identity thieves can cause by opening fraudulent accounts in your name can be severe, so take steps to keep your personal and financial information private. Be sure to review each of your credit reports at least annually (from the centralized service set up by the bureaus: (www.annualcreditreport.com or 877.322.8228) and look for evidence of any wrongdoing. If you do notice something amiss, take immediate and strong action!