Sunday, February 23, 2014

Identity Theft: Be Prepared for the Long Haul

Nearly a month after first detecting a potential identity theft when reviewing my credit reports, I’m frustrated by the lack of progress despite my efforts. A recent email from Experian, the credit bureau that seems to be the source of my problems, highlighted the company’s refusal to remove what I believe is the root cause record on my report. Just when I thought I was entering the final phase of cleaning up my credit report, I came to realize that I’m probably just getting through an early chapter in what will be a much longer story.

When I left my last post, I discussed how an Experian representative noted that I may have a “merged file” issue. Buried deep in my report was a new surprising clue.

With 20 years of credit history that includes a couple handfuls of student loans, car loans, mortgages, lines of credit, banking accounts, and addresses, my credit report is nearly 28 pages long. When something bad shows up in your credit report, you naturally focus on identifying all of the information that reflects badly on you. I have so many current and closed financial accounts labeled in good standing that I didn’t think of scrutinizing them for errors. After all, why would someone use your identity to open an account only to pay it off? It seems so unlikely that the possibility never entered my mind.

In discussing the report with the third Experian representative, the accusatory questioning continued in that completely unexpected direction. 
“Did you buy a car in 2005?” No.
“Did you ever co-sign an auto loan with [some debtor].” No.
“Do you know a [woman’s name].” No.
“Are you sure you don’t know [woman’s name].” No, I have no clue what you’re talking about.

Where was this information coming from? As the Experian representative continued interrogating me, I reviewed all of the closed accounts. Seven pages into the Accounts in Good Standing section, I found it. There, between records of an old undergraduate loan and a current credit card, I found a $10K auto loan made in 2005, co-signed by someone I have no knowledge of, and paid on time every single month until the loan closed in 2009. In the 9 years since, I have taken out mortgages, auto loans, lines of credit, have seen my credit reports countless times, and not once did either my spouse or I catch this one record.

I was shocked. How could we have been so careless? There are two likely reasons. First, the loan closed in good standing without one missed payment. I find it difficult to keep track of all of the accounts that I have opened over the years, many of which I opened in college when someone simply said, “Sign here and we’ll give you money.” Add to that the fact that some of our loans (especially mortgages) were frequently bought and sold during their duration, my reports are a mess. Who really pays attention to that stuff? With about 16 pages of accounts, I just never caught this one account amidst the other 28 accounts on my report. Second, Experian was the only bureau that showed a record of this one account on my report. Neither TransUnion nor Equifax had any record of the account. It didn’t appear to have any significant adverse impact on my credit record, so I overlooked it. My bad.

After an unproductive conversation with the Experian representative, I definitively stated that the account was not mine and should be removed along with all of the attached personal information that had sullied my report. She said that she would open an investigation. Now, several weeks later, I have an updated report in hand that removed the collection record that started this whole effort, but only removed a fraction of the invalid personal information and made no change to this new account in good standing.

I have more work to do. In round one, I was successful in removing the collection against my report, which should correct my credit score. That’s probably the most important result and I should feel some relief in that. I also submitted the requested documentation to Dish Network to get the company to stop collecting against my credit record, including a copy of my Drivers License (a completely illegitimate identity credential, but I’ll address that some other time), the incident report from my local police department, the FTC Identity Theft Affidavit signed by the same officer that took my complaint, and a copy of the adverse record on my credit report. To be thorough, rather than use email, I sent the package via certified mail with a return receipt so that I would have an official record that Dish received the documentation. 

Now, onto round two. Experian is not making it easy to clear up the insidious details that are tainting the rest of my credit record. I have issued a new dispute against my credit report and submitted the police report through Experian’s online system to strengthen my argument. Unfortunately, I suspect that I need to take more time out of my week to return to police department and amend my complaint to include the apparent fraud represented by the closed account on my credit report. I also need to contact the financial service that reported the auto loan against my record to find out what it will need to withdraw the record from my report.

Time spent so far: 12 hours.
Cost: $7.60 to send a certified mail package with return receipt to Dish Network.

A postscript to this whole ongoing incident response process. By filing a complaint with my local police department, this identity theft situation has now become part of the public record. A recent issue of my town newspaper highlighted the incident in its police log report, including the street that I live on, my gender, and that Dish Network was collecting against my credit account. It’s ironic that by following the necessary process to clean up my personal financial information, more information about me has now been published in the public domain.