By Carrie Kerskie, Director of the Identity Fraud Institute at Hodges University
Conducting a simple internet search will reveal numerous websites offering to provide you with your free credit reports. However, this could result in you subscribing to a service you do not want or need. Even worse, you could end up giving your sensitive information directly to identity thieves. The best way is to visit www.annualcreditreport.com by typing it in directly. When you get the website, make sure it says www.annualcreditreport.com in the URL box.
Annualcreditreport.com is the best place to get your free credit reports. This is the only website endorsed by the three main credit bureaus and the Federal Trade Commission.
The Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACTA) states that you are entitled to receive one free credit report from each credit bureau every 12 months. These major credit bureaus include Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. You will want to review all three reports, as not every creditor reports activity to all three credit bureaus. By only reviewing one, you could miss crucial information.
If you have not reviewed your credit reports in the past two years, I suggest you request all three credit reports at the same time. In subsequent years, I recommend you pull one credit report every four months from a different bureau. It is almost as good as credit monitoring and best of all, it is free.
To request your credit reports, you will need to provide your sensitive information online at www.AnnualCreditReport.com. Your concerns about security are covered in the next section.
Once you have entered your information, you have the ability to select which credit bureau report to request.
The website will randomly select the first credit bureau. You will be required to validate your identity with each credit bureau by answering multiple choice questions based upon your personal information. Here are a few sample questions:
- What is the license plate number on your vehicle (the make and model will be provided)?
- In 2013, you opened a credit card with which provider?
- Which of the telephone numbers are associated with you?
There are typically four questions from each credit bureau. One of the available answers is “none of the above.” It is okay to select this answer if it is the correct answer. Once you have answered all of the questions correctly, your credit report is revealed. If you are denied access to your credit report, it is because one or more of the questions were answered incorrectly. If this should happen to you, I recommend attempting to obtain your credit report from that bureau at a later time.
Once you have your credit report on your computer monitor, it is advised that you immediately print, save or download the credit report. Once you close out the report, you will not be able to retrieve it.
Online, Phone or Mail
I know, right now you are thinking, “is it safe to enter the information online?” This is a valid question, and the answer is it is as secure as possible. Your other options are to submit the request by mail or by telephone. Both of these have risks as well. With mail, you run the risk of someone stealing your mail or intercepting the information while in transit. When you make a request by telephone, the credit bureaus will mail your credit report to the current address on record. This poses two risks. The first is that your credit report could be intercepted before you receive it. The second risk is you may already be an identity theft victim, so the current address on file is that of your identity thief. By requesting your reports online at www.annualcreditreport.com, you will have access to your credit reports immediately.
If you choose to get your credit reports online, make sure you are using a secure computer, which is one that has real-time antivirus, not the free version. Also, make sure you are not using a public computer, such as one in a library. Both could leave you vulnerable. I suggest you do this at home on your secured Internet connection, not at a free Wi-Fi hotspot such as Starbucks. Plan to allocate at least one hour to request and review all three credit reports. You will be required to answer four to five questions, per credit bureau, relating to information on your credit report. This is to prevent someone else from requesting your credit reports as only you should know the answers to the questions. By doing this at home you will have access to your financial records, which could come in handy when answering the questions.
Where to Look
When reviewing your credit reports, you need to focus on the following sections.
- Credit accounts list your current and past credit accounts. Some of the creditor names may not ring a bell, as there have been many mergers and acquisitions in the financial industry. Also, you may have a store credit card, but the actual creditor is a different company. Try to focus on account balances and the date the accounts were opened. This may help with any confusion. You also have the option of contacting the creditor directly. Many post their contact information on the credit report.
- Recent inquiries list both hard and soft inquiries. Soft inquiries are requests from organizations you have a relationship with, as well as other non-credit score bearing inquiries, when you request your own credit report. Hard inquiries are requests for new or additional credit. This is the section where you want to focus.
- Name and address are those associated with your social security number. Focus on unknown names and addresses. You might see the name of a relative or your spouse, or your work address. These could be due to how the credit bureaus receive your information from various sources.
Warning Signs & Steps to Take
If you observe any of these on your credit report or reports, it could be a red flag for identity theft.
- Unknown creditor account – could be a sign of established new account fraud
- Unknown name or address – could be a sign of impending identity theft
- Unknown recent inquiry – could be a sign of impending new account fraud
Almost all of these can be disputed online. One credit bureau may simply have a “dispute” button next to each item, while another may have a “dispute” button at the top or bottom of the section or report. Once a dispute is initiated, you may be asked the reason for disputing the information. Your options may include unknown information or identity theft. If you have any questions, contact the corresponding credit bureau directly.
Many identity theft victims discover they are a victim after reviewing their credit reports. Because of this, you should review them on an annual basis by pulling one from a different bureau every four months. Just remember, the only website to use is www.AnnualCreditReport.com.