How to Spot Identity Theft on Your Credit Reports

If you’ve accessed your credit reports at any point in your life, odds are you’ve seen some mistaken information in your credit file. After all, statistics show the solid majority of people have errors on their credit report. Identity theft is one natural concern when this kind of information is found. But you may not need to file that police report just yet. It helps to understand that there are two main types of incorrect information on your credit reports.

Honest mistakes
If you see a wrong address, wrong middle initial or even a wrong account on your credit report, it may not necessarily be identity theft. A human error while entering information could always be a possibility. But usually, because credit reports are compiled based on your identifying information, these errors might just be a case of mistaken identity. For example, one thing financial coaches and counselors see often is a confusion of information between people with similar names. There is no malicious intent; you just got mistaken for someone else at some point during the data collection and dissemination process. However, this could mean another person’s potentially damaging information is finding its way onto your credit reports.

Major warning signs
The other main type of false information on your credit report is data generated because someone is using your information to open accounts or otherwise commit fraud. One of the best things about credit reports is that they track this kind of account information and leave a “paper trail” of accounts that are opened in your name. If you see a credit card on your credit report that was opened, quickly maxed out and then never paid on, that should be a red flag. Similarly, collections accounts, bankruptcies or liens you don’t recognize are also causes for concern.

When to take action
All incorrect information on your credit reports should be taken seriously. The bottom line is that you need to get this information off your credit reports, and as it turns out, getting it removed is also the best way to determine if false information is identity theft.

Since the formal dispute process to correct inaccuracies with the credit bureaus can take several weeks, it’s best to get started ASAP. The easiest way to do this is at the website (though you could do it by mail) of the bureaus reporting the information, whether that is Equifax, Experian or TransUnion. On each of these web pages is a link that will get you started on the dispute process. Be sure to dispute all the incorrect information, since an incorrect Social Security number or address could open the door for other incorrect information to get into your report.

While you’re waiting for the results of the disputes, begin building the case for the incorrect information not being yours. Immediately contact the organization listing the false data, whether that is a credit card company, collections agency, local court, etc. You have the right to access the information that is being reported to credit reports under your name, so request the organizations’ records relating to the account or legal matter. If these records show that you’re clearly being mistaken for someone – different address, different social security number, etc. – then your initial dispute should be successful. If it isn’t, you have a wealth of information you can provide to the credit bureaus in your follow-up dispute.

If the documentation you receive from the organizations listing the account or legal information matches your identifying information, yet you still don’t recognize the data as being yours, there is a pretty good chance you’ve been a victim of identity theft. If this is the case, it will likely be harder to get this information removed from your credit file because to the credit bureaus, it looks like you’re the one responsible. You need to not only contact your creditors but also contact the police to file a report immediately. The police report and documentation from the Federal Trade Commision will be vital for you to get the fraudulent account or legal information removed from your credit reports. It’s also a good idea to put a security freeze on your credit reports at the websites of the bureaus listed above, or by calling them, at least until you are able to better secure your information.

Any mistakes on your credit report should be taken very seriously. Failing to deal with them in a timely manner could make your financial life much harder going forward. However, if you are vigilant and diligent, you can protect your financial information and minimize the fallout from fraud.

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