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Credit reports can help protect your financial identity

Personal credit reports have been available for a small fee from major credit bureaus for years. But beginning June 1, residents of Mississippi, and the rest of the Southern states, became eligible to receive annual credit reports free from the three largest credit bureaus in the country.

“It is wonderful news,” said Bill Moak, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Mississippi. “The credit report is a crucial piece of information for consumers. Everybody should know what is in their credit report, which is information about your credit history over the past few years. This information is important in determining your eligibility for future credit offers. If there is inaccurate or erroneous information in your credit report, it can affect your credit score or could delay you getting a new home loan, car loan or some other type of credit you need.”

The three credit bureaus rely on people to enter data into their systems, and human error is possible. So it is important to correct any mistakes.

Another critical part of the picture is that credit reports can help pinpoint identity theft, and determine if someone is using your identity fraudulently. Identity theft is one of the fastest growing white collar crimes in America.

Credit reports can be ordered by calling 1- 877-322-8228, or filling out the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mailing it to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. The quickest way to get reports is by making a request on the Web site www.annualcreditreport.com.

Know what you’re getting

Moak warns consumers to be aware there are some Web sites that will offer you a free credit report, but you will be signing up for a service that will cost you money. The service can include notifying you of changes in your credit report during the year.

“That is something you might want to do, but it is misleading to say something is free if there are strings attached,” Moak said. “So you need to be careful. There is a Web site called www.freecreditreport.com, which is not the Web site we are trying to direct people to. That is operated by Equifax, a credit monitoring service. You need to sign on to www.annualcreditreport.com if you want to take advantage of the federally mandated service.”

There may be a backlog in the beginning as the federally mandated service is being rolled out in 11 Southern states, in addition to other states that became eligible earlier. All states across the country are to be added by September.

“It may be some time before you get this if you order it through the mail,” Moak said. “Over the Internet, it should be a lot quicker. You will register and get log on information, and can get your credit report that way. Just remember that when you sign up for your credit report, you will be asked for certain pieces of information to verify your identity. So if you are either at the annual credit report site or going to the 877 number, you can be sure that your information will be taken care of.”

Daily complaints and inquiries

Cammie Wyatt, special assistant attorney general for Mississippi, said Mississippi is running neck and neck with the rest of the country when it comes to the number of identity theft problems. She works in the identity theft unit of the consumer protection division of the Attorney General’s Office (AGO), and fields complaints and inquiries daily.

She said theft of people’s debit card and credit card numbers is the most frequent complaint. Often it doesn’t mean that the actual card has been stolen, but just the numbers, which are then used to order on the Internet.

Wyatt recalls a recent incident when a woman in Mississippi used her card at a drug store. The cashier took down the number and ordered $200 worth of goods off the Internet.

The cashier had the goods delivered to her home, which made solving the crime relatively easy.

Wyatt is a big proponent of getting the annual credit report.

“Actively monitoring your credit report is one of the most important steps in protecting your financial identity,” Wyatt said. “That is the number one way to find out if someone is using your Social Security number or credit accounts.

There is also name fraud, where someone will open an account in your name, using your Social Security number and date of birth. You don’t find out about that for a while. They will keep paying bills for a while, and have statements sent to their house. When they stop paying bills, the creditor won’t come after them. They will come after you.”

When the AGO’s identity theft unit does public presentations, people are advised to run financial papers through a paper shredder, including pre-approved credit card applications that come through the mail.

Pre-approved credit card applications can be stolen and used to open a fraudulent line of credit.

Wyatt recommends if you aren’t interested in receiving pre-approved credit card applications, call the toll free number 1-888-567-8688 or go to the Web site www.optoutprescreen.com to stop receiving these offers.

“Anyone with a Social Security number can do it,” Wyatt said. “That prevents these pre-approved credit applications from being taken from your mail or garbage and used to obtain credit cards in your name. You can even do it for your kids if they are receiving these pre-approved credit card applications.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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