Added information about Innovis, a fourth credit reporting agency. Added information about TeleCheck. Expanded information about ChoicePoint/ChoiceTrust reports. Normalized formatting and other minor tweaks.
Wake-up! Time to get to work. Go get all your identity reports, make sure nothing has appeared that is bogus or suspicious. With the US economy in the same state as your average mushroom farm, getting credit of any sort is exceptionally difficult now. And thieves are going to be taking advantage of the situation any way they can. It’s more important than ever before to keep on your toes! This year I’ve added details on a fourth credit reporting agency called Innovis Data Solutions, and re-verified all the other information is correct and accurate. Get to it!
Updated several links and removed the link for stolenidsearch.com as it is now defunct. Added additional introductory paragraph about current year.
2008 is here and our long-promised bounty of money from the government will be sent out in just over a month. Be cautious about any offers on websites or in e-mail about advances on your government IRS rebate, or statements that you need to pay processing fees or other nonsense.
Oh, and it’s past time to do another annual identity check! If you did one of these last year in 2007, you’ll have the extra bonus of being able to compare your reports side-by-side and see any changes. In addition to protecting your identity and your finances, you may even find some ways to save money. So let’s get on with the original article, shall we?
As 2006 has passed and tax season is upon us, now is an excellent time to start an annual identity check. In this article, I’ll provide detailed instructions on how to do your own identity check without spending any money. By identity check, I mean:
- Verifying your personal information is correct and up-to-date
- Looking for signs of mis-use of your personal information
- Looking for possible exposure of your personal information
I will not be writing about:
- Credit scores and how to view them
- Restructuring debt
- Recovering from identity theft
This time of year is an excellent time for an identity check. You’ll already be working on taxes (if you haven’t already been lucky enough to finish them), so you’ll have a lot of records in front of you. End-of-year statements from most financial institutes should be available and many fiscal budgets will have renewed. The winter holidays have finished, and that is a time when there’s increased opportunity for financial fraud and ID theft, as so many of us were purchasing presents, traveling and otherwise exposing our sensitive data to merchants and vendors. By this time, if something illicit has been done with your personal data there’s a good chance you’ll catch it.
Oh, and this year there’s an additional serious threat. TransUnion, one of the three credit report tracking companies, has inadvertently allowed hundreds of people’s personal information to be leaked:
There are many financial institutes, government agencies and service providers that track information about you. Checking all of them can be time-consuming and may seem overly cautious. But identity theft is a serious risk and is on the rise. Unlike plain credit card fraud, identity theft means someone has obtained much of your personal data (social security number, drivers license number, birthdate, etc) and used it to open new accounts, apply for loans or even create fake photo IDs. Identity theft can be extremely damaging to a person long-term and is much harder to recover from than having someone use your credit card illegally.
With that being said, feel free to skip any steps that seem unnecessary to you. Use your own judgment about your level of ID theft risk. Older people (40+), those with many financial accounts and heavy travelers should be more wary than college students who live at home, for example. However, parents of minors should perform an identity check on their children at least once. While ID theft of children is uncommon, it’s just as damaging and minors can’t do many of the steps necessary to protect themselves. Part of being a responsible parent is making sure your child’s future isn’t tainted by identity theft. And breach of children’s personal data does happen:
Things You Will Need
a) An unmarked, empty folder labeled “Identity Check” along with the current year (i.e. “Identity Check 2006”).
b) A pad of paper and pen to make notes and check-off your steps as you go.
c) A hard copy of this guide.
d) A working phone, preferably personal home or cell phone.
e) A working FAX machine that can send and receive FAXes.
f) A computer with Internet access and functioning printer, though technically this is not required. Just a *whole* lot easier.
g) A block of time to work on the Identity Check, ideally four hours. You may need to break it up into multiple sessions, but the important point is to have clear time in which there are no distractions.
Most importantly, plan on doing this in the privacy of your own home and not in a public venue or the workplace. You’ll be talking on the phone as well as typing on a computer, giving out and reading a great deal of personally identifying information about yourself.
Credit History Reports
First, pull your free credit reports from Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Fortunately this is easy to do by going to http://www.annualcreditreport.com/. The website is run by all three companies and is a legitimate service site. Be very careful to visit “http://www.annualcreditreport.com/” and not mis-type any part of the URL, or you will land on a website intent on mugging you. You can click on the link provided but I recommend typing it in by hand.
As you go through the request process, you will be directed in turn to each credit reporting agency’s website. Each of these will require you complete authentication information before viewing your reports. Authentication will not only require your social security number but also knowledge of your personal finances (i.e. what bank holds your car loan). Take your time through the authentication as you can lock yourself out if you are not careful.
Note: If you do not have Internet access you can still get your credit report, as you are legally entitled to it. Each agency has a separate phone number that can be used to submit your request for a credit report:
Once you get access to your report, print it out or at lease make a soft copy by saving the webpages. You’ll have at least a week to go back and view these reports directly, depending on the credit agency. If you ordered your reports by phone, you will be receive them via US Mail.
Special Note: Innovis Data Solutions (a.k.a. Innovis) is a relatively new credit reporting agency, owned by CBC Companies (a privately-owned business based in Columbus, OH and founded in 1948). They do not provide credit reports directly to banks or other lending institutes. Instead, they provide mailing lists of prospective customers, which banks and credit card companies can use as targets for mailing offers. Innovis claims to only record a history of bad consumer debt, and not a consumers complete credit history. Because of this, Innovis claims it is not obliged to provide an annual free credit report, though they are still legally required to provide your credit report upon request. You can still get a free report if you have been a victim of identiy fraud, been turned down for credit based on your Innovis report or are on public assistance. You can not get your Innovis credit report directly from any webpage, you must order it over the phone or submit a request by mail. Both processes require a payment, with the fee varying depending on what state you live in.
When you view each credit report, look carefully for any significant errors. You have the right to report any errors and have them corrected. Some errors can just be human typos, but an error can also be a sign of fraudulent activity. What should raise a red flag:
- Open credit accounts you do not remember ever signing up for
- Past-due status on any accounts, including closed ones (assuming you aren’t in the habit of missing your bills, that is).
- Past addresses for yourself that you don’t recognize
- Odd spellings of your name or contact information
A credit report will list any account that has been opened in your name or that you were co-signer on, and both active and closed accounts will be listed. Therefore, you need to verify all accounts as an ID thief may have opened and closed an account quickly (to try and avoid detection), or used you as a co-signer on a false application. Take your time and read the report carefully, don’t skim. You only do this once a year so it’s worth dedicating an hour or so of your time.
Make notes about any discrepancies as you go but wait until you’ve reviewed all the reports before going back to the agencies and correcting information. An error may appear in one report but not the others, and something which looked suspicious on one report may become clear when you view the others.
Each agency has its own process for disputing any errors in the reports, usually still requiring a manual submission of paperwork. If you have to make phone calls to ask questions on the process or actually dispute an item, be sure to log the call on a sheet of paper or in a text document (date, time, number called and summary of call). The reports should clearly state where to get more information on correcting errors or disputing an entry. If not, check the websites for the appropriate credit reporting agency:
When you are done with the credit report reviews, and submitting any corrections if necessary, put the reports in your annual Identity Check folder. Make copies of any corrections you may
have submitted and put them in the folder as well.
Personal History Reports
Our second step is pulling additional reports that relate to your personal history. Besides the credit history reports (which reflect credit accounts such as credit cards, home equity lines and various loans), you are also entitled to free reports about your check cashing history, medical records on file with insurance carriers, insurance claims and more. These are lesser-known but jut as critical reports. They take a bit more work to obtain but are easy to review.
ChexSystems tracks reports of bad checks associated with a person, and is used by many merchants and banks nationwide to help fight check fraud. Unless you have made a habit of writing bad checks, you shouldn’t have any records on file with ChexSytems. You are legally entitled to one free copy of your ChexSystems consumer report per year. Unfortunately, you can only order it online if you’ve actually been turned down for an account in the past 60 days:
Note: Do not try and go to “chexsystems.com” or “www.chexsystems.com”. That domain name is run by a squatter and is not associated in any way with the ChexSystems company.
So to order your ChexSystems report, you can FAX, call or write to them:
Attn: Consumer Relations
7805 Hudson Road, Suite 100
Woodbury, MN 55125
Phone: 1-800-428-9623 (automated)
FAX : 1-602-659-2197
If you call, you will follow voice prompts and be directed to leave a voicemail with your personal information including social security number, drivers license numbers and contact information. Make sure to note the call in your phone log! For both mail and FAX there is an order form you can fill-out and submit, available from their website:
Note: If you do not have Internet access, you should be able to go to the above webpage from a public library and print out the form.
I recommend the FAX option as its faster than mail and slightly safer than leaving voicemail. Keep the form you FAXed as well as any FAX status report and put them in your Identity Check folder. It will take several weeks for your request to be processed and the report mailed. If you don’t get a FAX status report, make a quick note in your phone log for having sent the FAX.
Once you receive the ChexSystems report, reviewing it is quick and simple. Look for any checks you did not order, drivers license numbers you don’t recognize, and any reports of bad checks or closed accounts. Note that a bounced check won’t automatically show-up in this report, but a pattern of many bad checks will. Ideally, your report should be one page and mostly say “No Information found” under each section.
Like ChexSystems, TeleCheck reports on bad check history. Different businesses and banks may choose TeleCheck over ChexSystems, or even use both. So of course it’s important to verify there is not anything erroneous on file. You request your free annual FCRA credit report from TeleCheck by calling:
and following the voice prompts. You will need to speak to a live operator to submit your request, including providing verification data such as your drivers license number. Once verified, your report will be mailed to you.
Medical Information Bureau
Next, you’ll request a copy of your Medical Information Bureau consumer report. The MIB Group is a non-profit professional organization that acts as the equivalent of a credit reporting agency for medical information. The MIB Group assists life and medical insurance companies in preventing fraud by tracking certain medical conditions about you.
Now please note that these are not the same sort of medical records as you would find from a doctors office or a hospital. All the MIB will have on you are codes indicating various medical conditions, and how often you have applied for medical or life insurance in the past seven years. For more information on the MIB, you can visit the following website:
Your MIB record disclosure can only be ordered via phone:
|Medical Information Bureau||1-866-692-6901 (voice)|
When you call, you will actually be ordering your report through an interactive voice response system and not just leaving a voicemail. This will take a little bit of time, so allow about 15 minutes for the call, and don’t forget to log it in your phone log! There’s a lot of legal boilerplate to listen to and acknowledge. Then you have to say and spell your name, address, birthday, and so-on. The system will advise you that your request will be processed within 15 days. You will either receive a report with details on what records the MIB has on you, or a statement saying they have no data on you at this time.
When you receive your MIB report, any medical codes will have been translated into plain english for you. You will be able to see what company filed each set of codes. While detailed medical information won’t appear you are likely to find things like height and weight. What your looking for here is any medical conditions you don’t have, and most importantly any reports files by an insurance company you do not recognize. If you haven’t obtained personal life or medical insurance, you will likely not have any records.
ChoicePoint Consumer Disclosure Reports
ChoicePoint is a company which tracts various individual histories relating to noin-credit activity such as employment, property rental, insurance claims and other factors relating to risk determination. ChoicePoint operates the consumer-oriented part of their services under the name ChoiceTrust, but they are the same company. ChoicePoint was just recently purchased in September, 2008 by Reed Elsevier and now is considered part of the Lexis-Nexis family.
You may or may not have some of these reports with ChoicePoint. The FACT act guarantees you the right to one free annual copy of any report ChoicePoint/ChoiceTrust does have on you. Because we’re concerned about identity theft, these two reports are very important to check. An identity thief may rent housing or apply for jobs under your name, which can still have consequences for you.
Note: You can request a ChoicePoint Full Disclosure report by mailing a request with required documentation, however this means you will be sending confidential and sensitive data about yourself through the mail, and not everyone is comfortable with that. A Full Disclosure report may only be requested via US mail, while the individual reports can be requested over the phone. You can get the ChoicePoint Full Disclosure form here, and then mail it with the documentation to:
ChoicePoint Consumer Center
Attn: Full File Disclosure
P.O. Box 105108
Atlanta, GA 30348-5108
C.L.U.E. stands for Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange. ChoicePoint maintains a five year history of insurance claims on property. These reports are used by insurance companies to determine a potential customers risk and look for possible fraud. If you find claims on your C.L.U.E. report which you know you never filed, especially for property you don’t own, then your identity has probably been stolen.
Before ordering, look-up the following information:
- When your home was originally built
- The amount the original loan you got on the home was for
- What mortgage company handled the original loan
- Any previous addresses you may have lived in or owned
You can order and view your C.L.U.E. reports entirely on-line by visiting the following webpage:
There are two reports, one for personal property (home, boats, assets) and one for auto. Order both reports. You may need to sign-up a new account with ChoiceTrust, but there’s no charge for this. You will need to provide your primary residence address, name, phone number, birthdate and social security number. You will also need to complete five question quiz to verify your identity. This can be tricky, as you may be asked for the year your home was originally built, the original amount of the loan for your home, the address of previous properties you owned/rented, or other trivia. Try looking up that information before ordering.
Once you complete your order you can view both reports on-line. Go ahead and save the webpages of the reports and make print-outs. You’ll have 30 days to come back and view the reports, though. Review the report and look for any claims you do not recognize, especially if they are paid-out claims. If you do find any errors, you have the legal right to dispute them, however it must be done in written form:
C.L.U.E. Inc. Consumer Disclosure Center
PO Box 105295
Atlanta, GA 30348
Note: You can also use the same postal address above to request a copy of your C.L.U.E. reports by mail if you do not have Internet access.
You can also order your C.L.U.E. reports by calling:
ChoicePoint C.L.U.E. Report 1-866-312-8076
You will work with an interactive voice response system. Note that the system will ask you for information from an insurance letter. Answer the prompts the best you can, using the name of your current insurance company.
ChoicePoint Workplace Solutions maintains and dispenses employment history reports that a business may request through ChoiceTrust. To request your free report, call:
|ChoicePoint Workplace Solutions||1-866-312-8075|
and listen to the instructions. This is an automated voice reponse system where you can either speak or punch-in your responses. You will need your social security number, current address and date of birth to request a report. However, if there is no report on file for your social security number, you can be confident this part of your identity check is clean.
You may also order your employment history report by mail. Simply send a written request for the report to the following address:
ChoicePoint WorkPlace Solutions Inc. Consumer Disclosure Center
P.O. Box 105292
Atlanta, GA 30348
You can request your resident data report by calling:
|Resident Data Inc.||1-877-448-5732|
and speaking with a live operator. When you call you will probably be placed on hold, however my own wait time was short. Again, you’ll need to provide your social security number, date of birth and current address to request the report. The operator will tell you if they have anything in their database on you. If you do not appear in their systems, that’s great! Otherwise, you’ll be allowed to request a copy of the report that will then be mailed to you. When you receive it, you’ll need to review the report for any errors regarding residences you may have lived in.
And as with the other agencies, you can request your tenant history report by mail. Send your written request to:
Resident Data Inc. Consumer Disclosure Center
P.O. Box 850126
Richardson, TX 75085-0126
Year-End Statements and Contact Information Verification
Our third step is a bit easier and more general than the previous steps. The aim here is to obtain and review any year-end statements for financial accounts and to verify your address, phone number and e-mail address is listed correctly with all of the agencies you deal with.
For year-end statements, you will receive a number of these automatically as part of the flurry of forms that arrive at the start of tax season. You may or may not receive a separate year-end statement for banking, investment and retirement accounts. In many cases the final statement of the year (be it monthly or quarterly) is labeled as a year-end statement. With credit cards, you usually have to order a year-end statement, which may or may not require a fee. I recommend paying for these as long as it’s reasonable (no more than $10), as you can retain them for long-term records while discarding the larger collection of monthly statements.
With each year-end statement, spend at least 10 minutes reviewing the entries. You may need more time for longer statements but its important to take that; an account with a lot of activity is one where fraud is more likely to go undiscovered. Look for unusually large charges, transactions outside your usual geographic area and merchants you do not recognize. With investment and retirement accounts (401k, IRA), you can skip over deposit entries and focus on finding any withdraws or transfers you don’t remember doing.
If you find a suspicious transaction, make a note of it. Wait until you’ve gone through all your statements before contacting any of the financial agencies. You may find additional items to dispute or even something that clarifies a questionable transaction.
Now verifying contact information is a lot simpler. In most cases you can simply look at the address used to mail the statement to you, so this is a no-brainer. Organizations that you should verify with include:
- Credit card companies
- Retirement and investment companies
- Utility companies (power, gas, water & sewer, cable, phone)
However, you should go ahead and check with agencies and service providers you don’t deal with via postal mail on a frequent basis, such as:
- Your local DMV
- Any pharmacies you use
- Professional organizations you’ve joined
- Business networking websites such as LinkedIn, Ryze and eCademy
- On-line merchants such as Amazon, eBay, Yahoo Shops and others
In many cases you can view and update your contact information on-line, but some agencies will require a phone-call to verify you.
Digging-up Your Own Data
The final step in our annual identity check is to see if any personal data about yourself has been leaked, either to the Internet at large or through a government or corporate data breach. This is a research step and how long it will take will depend on how thorough you are. Please note that searching about yourself carries a tiny bit of risk because the queries you submit to search engines could potentially themselves be leaked.
First, try searching for generic contact information such as your current address, phone number and e-mail address. You may want to perform these searches with more than one search engine, or use a meta-search engine. Some choices available to you:
What you are looking for here is not someone else using your identity, but rather how much exposure of your personal information is on the web. If you search for your name and address and find a webpage containing part of your social security number, birthdate or similar information than you can take steps to restrict that information.
With Google, you may want to do some of these searches under their image search engine:
Frankly, this can be a very time-consuming process as you need to filter out many bogus hits, and you can’t assume that the results from one or two search engines are conclusive. Many people will not find this a productive use of time, but if you have been victimized in the past your opinion may be different.
Your Done, For Now
Collect all your print-outs, notes, and mailed reports and put them in your Annual Identity Check folder. If you had corrections to submit, go ahead and submit them now and make copies of any e-mails or postal letters you send. If you kept a phone log, put a copy in the folder as well but keep the phone log around for a while to handle follow-up calls.
The vast majority of us will find nothing of note, or some minor data entry errrors that need correcting. Some people may discover a fraudulent credit card transaction or two. And an even smaller, but growing, number will stumble across wholesale attempts to steal their identity. By performing an annual identity check, you can keep yourself out of that growing minority, and minimize your legal responsibilities if you or your family ever are victimized.