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Fighting Identity Theft

Here’s some advice from privacy experts if you believe you’ve become
vulnerable to identity theft.

– First, prepare yourself for a long, hard slog through a bureaucratic
maze. Get organized — keep a file with all your paperwork, including
the names and numbers of everyone you contact.

– File as detailed a police report as possible. Send copies to
creditors and other agencies that may require proof of the crime. Get
the phone number of your investigator and give it to creditors. In all
communications, use certified, return receipt mail.

– Report that you may be the victim of identity theft with at least
one of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax (www.equifax.com or
800-685-1111), Experian (www.experian.com or 888-397-3742) or
TransUnion (www.transunion.com or 800-888-4213). That bureau is
required to notify the other two.

– Be sure to get your unique case number, and ask the bureau to send
you a credit report. Read it carefully for any suspicious activity.

– Tell the bureau to issue a “fraud alert,” which requires mortgage
brokers, car dealers, credit card companies and other lenders to
scrutinize anyone who opens an account in your name for 90 days. Also,
ask for the document you need to file a long-term fraud alert, which
lasts for seven years, and can be canceled at any time.

– Ask the bureau for names and phone numbers of lenders with whom
fraudulent accounts have been opened (since this information may not be
included on the credit report). Tell the bureau to remove inquiries
generated due to fraud, since even a small number of inquiries can harm
your credit rating.

– Tell the bureau to notify anyone who received your report in the
last six months that you are disputing the information. The credit
bureaus will alert any employer who has asked for the report in the
last two years.

– Californians can order a “credit freeze” with all three major credit
bureaus (call the same numbers as above). This requires lenders,
retailers, utilities and other businesses to get special access to your
credit report through a PIN-based system and helps prevent anyone from
getting any new loans and credit in your name. Vermont, Texas and
Louisiana have similar freeze laws going into effect later this year,
and bills have been introduced in 12 other states.

– Call credit card companies directly. Although financial institutions
are supposed to see your fraud alerts, the data isn’t always shared
immediately. Credit card companies generally forgive consumers for
fraudulent transactions but late payments — even on credit cards you
didn’t open — can damage your rating.

– Fill out fraud affidavits for creditors. The Federal Trade
Commission provides a form that many creditors accept.

– If your credit cards have been used fraudulently, get replacements
with new account numbers and close your old accounts.

– Monitor mail for any suspicious increase or decrease in volume or
strange bills, and be on the lookout particularly for change-of-address
forms. The post office must send notifications to your old and new
addresses if someone tries to change your mailing address — a major
tip-off that you’ve been victimized.

– If debt collectors demand payment of fraudulent accounts, write down
the name of the company, the collector’s name, phone number and
address. Tell the collector you’re a victim of fraud. Send a letter
with the FTC form filled out.