CONSUMER WATCH: Act now to head off identity theft

TIMES-DISPATCH COLUMNIST (Iris Taylor)

9/23/2006 – IRIS TAYLOR
TIMES-DISPATCH COLUMNIST Sep 23, 2006

Virginia Commonwealth University students whose Social Security numbers and other information were exposed by your school on the Internet, have you moved to protect yourself from identity theft?

Other readers, this applies to you, too.

Not sure if your credit information has been breached? Go to www.privacyrights.org/ar/ChronDataBreaches.htm and see if any entity that you do business with or work for is on the list.

Don’t procrastinate. The San Diego, Ca.-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has documented 93,685,986 data breaches on its Web site since February 2005.

Follow these steps before somebody steals your information and wreaks havoc with your credit:

Read the notice about the data exposure from the entity that breached your information. See if anything needs to be done with that entity, such as signing up for free credit monitoring if offered.

Go to www.consumer.gov/idtheft, site of the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, and fill out the ID theft affidavit. If you later become a victim, you will need it, said Experian’s Rod Griffin.

Call a credit reporting agency and ask that a fraud alert be put on your credit report. Call Experian at (888) 397-3742, Equifax at (800) 525-6285, or TransUnion at (800) 680-7289. “That alerts anyone who is trying to open new accounts that the consumer may be the victim of fraud,” said Federal Trade Commission spokeswoman Claudia Bourne-Farrell.
Order a copy of your credit report. Review it to be sure no new accounts have been opened in your name. “To reduce the risk and potential impact of identity theft, make a habit of reviewing your credit report regularly — annually at a minimum,” urged Marla Puckett, a credit counselor at ClearPoint Financial Solutions in Richmond.
Closely review your bills monthly. Be sure there are no unauthorized charges.
Make sure your bills are arriving in a timely manner. “If they aren’t, it may mean somebody has diverted an account,” said Bourne-Farrell. “Then, they can use it, but your bills don’t get to you, so you don’t know they are using it.”
Add a victim statement if you observe signs of fraud. It tells credit grantors to telephone you before extending any new credit in your name.

Why is it important to act now, rather than later? “The longer you wait to correct any errors, the more it will impact your credit history,” said Puckett.

Wondering about the VCU incident?

The namees, Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses of 2,100 or so current and former VCU freshmen and graduate engineering students from 1998 through 2005 had, for eight months, been sitting online until last month when a student stumbled across her information.

The exposure was caused by human error. VCU said it has taken steps to strengthen the security of students’ confidential information and offers to pay for a credit search and credit monitoring for a year, said spokeswoman Pam Lepley.

No incidents of fraud have been reported to VCU, she said.

. . .

Daniel Bryan Jr., an Ameriprise Financial adviser in Richmond, had a question about last week’s column, “Virginians can again get free credit reports.”

Among other advice, the column urged consumers to order one credit report from a different agency once a quarter — every three months — instead of getting all three reports at once. It’s a way of monitoring their credit all year long.

Bryan wanted to know if the free reports are available during the calendar year, or any 12-month period.

Other readers may have that question, too. The answer is, “It’s not based on a calendar year,” said Rod Griffin, a spokesman for Experian, one of the three credit agencies issuing free reports at www.annualcreditreport.com.

The federal law “said you can get a credit report once every 12 months,” he said. “That 12 months is based on when you requested the report”

So, it doesn’t matter what month you order it, but you can’t order again from that agency until 12 months later.

It’s smart to order one from, say, Experian this month, one from Equifax in January and one from TransUnion in June.
Contact staff writer Iris Taylor at itaylor@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6349.
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