Money Matters: Protecting yourself from identity theft

Money Matters: Protecting yourself from identity theft

Elaine Morgillo
8/1/2007 – Recently, banking associations in Maine, Connecticut and Massachusetts announced plans to file a class action suit against TJX Companies Inc., claiming that it negligently represented the security of its computer system. As a result of a security breach that may have lasted from 2003 through 2006, information about more than 45 million consumers who used credit or debit cards at TJ Maxx, Marshalls, AJ Wright or HomeGoods stores may have been stolen.

Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in the United States, and identity thieves are using more creative and high-tech methods to fraudulently obtain your personal information. Identity theft can wreak havoc on your life, potentially affecting your credit rating or job opportunities. In extreme cases you may be arrested for a crime you did not commit. Repairing the damage can take months or years.

The best way to protect yourself is to always be vigilant: review every credit card bill and bank statement as soon as you receive it. Regularly obtain a copy of your credit report. Shred documents that contain account numbers, Social Security numbers and other identifying information before disposing of them. Do not disclose your Social Security number unless required by law. Do not respond to e-mail messages claiming to be from financial institutions.

If you suspect you may be the victim of identity theft, take action immediately. The following suggestions were provided by the office of the Massachusetts Attorney General, but they are appropriate for residents of any state:

1. Call one of the three major credit bureaus and place a one-call fraud alert on your credit report:

Equifax: Call (800) 525-6285, or write to: P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
Experian: Call (888) 397-3742, or write to: P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013
TransUnion: Call (800) 680-7289, or write to: Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790 Fullerton, CA 92834-6790

You only need to call one of the three credit bureaus; the one you contact is required by law to contact the other two. The alert will remain in your credit file for at least 90 days. The fraud alert requires creditors to contact you before opening any new accounts or increasing credit limits on your existing accounts, and all three credit bureaus are required to send you a credit report free of charge.

2. Review your credit reports for unauthorized activity.

3. If you believe there is unexplained activity, consider placing an extended fraud alert on your credit report. In order to do this, you must file a police report with your local police department, keep a copy for yourself, and provide a copy to one of the three major credit bureaus. Then an extended fraud alert can be placed on your credit file for a seven-year period.

While the extended fraud alert is on your file, anyone who checks your credit report, such as a credit card company or lender, will be notified that you do not authorize any new credit cards, any increase in credit limits, the issuance of a new card on an existing account, or other increases in credit, unless the user takes extra precautions to ensure that it is giving the additional credit to you and not to an identity thief.

4. Contact the fraud departments of the credit card issuer or bank that may have been affected and request that they monitor your account for suspicious activity. As an extra precaution, you should ask that they cancel the affected account and issue a new credit or ATM/debit card to you.

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