Monday, January 27, 2014

A Victim of Identity Theft?

I believe that I am the victim of identity theft.

At first, I didn’t think much of it. Perhaps my understanding of how personal data flows and security drove me to discount what it was I was seeing as “really no big deal.” Or, maybe I have become so cynical about how the definition of identity theft has expanded to include acts that I wouldn’t naturally consider a “theft” that I disregarded the event. Whatever the root cause of my denial, I’ve moved on. It’s time to deal with the problem and I plan to share my experiences every step of the way.

When I first realized that I might have a problem, I was applying for a new mortgage. In the midst of a relocation from Northern Virginia the the Boston area, my family was in complete disarray, my spouse had just started a new position, and I was transitioning out of one while planning a new startup. The last thing that I wanted to worry about was the credit report issue that my lender had alerted me to. I checked with the big three credit bureaus, found a collection action on one report for service I had never subscribed to, and disputed the account on my credit. It was easy enough to address, and after applying a credit block with each bureau, I didn’t worry about it further.

The next indication that I had addressed a symptom rather than the cause happened when I was signing my mortgage documents having finally found a new home several months later. In the midst of the paperwork was a bank document requesting that I sign my name for aliases. In credit reports, a creditor may refer to you as your legal first name/last name, perhaps with a nickname you used to use instead of your first name, maybe including your middle name or maiden name, etc. In this case, the aliases included a name completely foreign to me. I was advised by my lawyer to simply give my signature as normal, that doing so was in no way affirming my use of that alias. I promptly let it leave my mind.

Why? Let's start with this: credit reports are very confusing to read. As I was in a time of high stress with concerns that spanned many areas of life, I didn’t take the time to really review each one, focusing instead on just the one that had an apparent issue. I just did a cursory review at the time, quickly identified the primary problem (a collection against my credit record), and then moved on to other important things. I suppose that I simply accepted the risk that not doing more could come back to haunt me. Fortunately, while it turns out that there’s more for me to do, I doubt that it will have much of an ongoing impact.

After recently going through another credit action, my bank reported a new issue with my credit report. Frustrated (well, really, cursing while looking for something to throw), I pulled out my computer and went to AnnualCreditReport.com to request my full report from each of the three credit bureaus. By US law, you are entitled to one free credit report from each major credit bureau every year. Everyone should take advantage of that, regardless if you suspect an issue. I decided that I needed to do a deep review of each record.

Sure enough, a new collection action had appeared on two of my three reports, causing my credit score to drop to its lowest level as long as I can remember. It’s for less than $400 owed to Dish Network for services that I never subscribed to. Geez, I should just go ahead and pay the debt. It would be much cheaper in the long run! But, no, I’m too principled for that and I’m confident that accepting the debt would cause the collection to have long-term damage on my credit. So, my first act is to dispute the credit action.

Here, the credit bureaus are fairly good. Through each report interface that you can receive from AnnualCreditReport.com, the bureaus give you the opportunity to quickly dispute an action and provide some information about it. From there, they will investigate and, if my past experience is a guide, promptly remove the action from your credit record. It takes some time to navigate the interface, but at least the function is there without too much consumer overhead. I should note that, if you suspect that something is wrong with your credit report, you may get it directly from the bureau in question free-of-charge as part of the dispute process. In this case, I just decided to get the annual reports so that I could review them all together.

The adverse action on my credit was a repeat of the action I had detected previously, this time from a new collector. That concerned me. How long will I have to continue disputing this action? Probably as long as the collectors believe that they can make money from it. So, I needed to dig further.

In addition to being difficult to read, each bureau's credit report includes different information. Reading carefully through the one from Equifax, I saw no issues whatsoever. On another from TransUnion, the top of the report very helpfully included a personal information summary that included an address history with multiple addresses in places I’ve never lived and a phone number that I’ve never had. This section was followed immediately by an Adverse Accounts section showing the bogus collection activity. Bummer. On the third from Experian, a Credit Items section on the second page showed the collection activity. Then, buried deep on page 24 of the report, it included a list of names, addresses, and phone numbers associated with the report, including the name I saw before when signing for my new mortgage. Three reports and only one of them showed that name (and several others). Major bummer, but at least now I have the information that I need to correct my reports.

Detection is just the first step. While I was able to dispute the collection through the online interfaces of the two credit bureaus that list the account my my report, there is a lot of personal information that I need to get them to correct that cannot be done online. Also, I need to figure out how to get Dish Network to stop trying to collect money from me for an account that I’ve never had. I’ll describe all of this and more in future posts as I go through the process of cleaning up from this incident.

Time spent so far: 4 hours just for the most recent detection activity.
Cost: $0