According to the government, 8.3 million Americans fell victim to identity theft in 2005. Estimated losses surpassed $15 billion. Fortunately, you can protect yourself from identity theft.
You've probably seen ads touting identity theft "protection" services. For a monthly fee, your credit report is locked. You receive copies of your credit reports annually. The services also promise to insure you against identity theft.
The monthly fees quickly add up. You can accomplish the same thing for less through the credit reporting agencies. And you don't need to disclose personal data to a third party.
FREE CREDIT REPORTS
Keeping an eye on your credit report is your first step to protecting yourself. Federal law grants you a free credit report each year. Each of the three major credit reporting agencies must provide one.
I recommend staggering your credit report requests. For example, request a report from Experian. Four months later, request one from Equifax. In eight months, request it from TransUnion.
Credit activity should appear on all reports. However, there may be discrepancies between reports from the three bureaus.
Request your free reports at annualcreditreport.com or call (877) 322-8228. Be sure you go to the correct site. Other sites use the word "free" in their names. This business seems to thrive on confusion. For free reports mandated by Congress, you want this site, period.
FREEZING YOUR CREDIT
You can also freeze your credit report. A credit freeze prevents thieves from opening lines of credit.
New creditors can't access your credit report. So they are less likely to issue credit to a thief. That assumes that the creditor consults a reporting agency.
Companies with which you already do business may access your report. It may be accessed for fraud investigation, collection, account review and the like.
Plan carefully if you freeze your credit. You can't apply for new credit with a freeze in place. And limits cannot be increased on your accounts.
Credit freezes can be lifted, either temporarily or permanently. It may take three days or longer to lift a freeze.
A freeze can be lifted temporarily for a particular creditor. You verify your identification and provide a PIN to lift the freeze. Then, you name the creditor. You may need to provide another PIN to the creditor.
Or you can lift a freeze for a set amount of time. This ranges from one to 30 days. This is helpful if you are comparing credit card or mortgage rates.
You must freeze your credit with each of the three major agencies. In most cases, you will pay $10 to freeze your credit. This depends upon your state of residence. Some states limit freezes to seven years.
There is also a charge for lifting a freeze permanently. Again, this is usually $10.
Things are different if you can prove that your identity was stolen. Fees for credit freezes and removals are generally waived. The freeze lasts seven years or until you request removal.
Credit reporting agencies do not always make freeze information easy to find. I have direct links to Equifax, Experian and TransUnion at www.komando.com/news.
MONITORING YOUR CREDIT
For more security, you can sign up for credit monitoring. You'll be able to spot the first signs of identity theft. You're alerted to any changes in your credit reports
All three reporting agencies offer monitoring services for $15 monthly. You need to sign up with only one agency. The benefits outshine those offered by third-party services.
You'll also receive insurance against identity theft. Start at the home pages of Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.