It’s November! Tis the season for increased identity theft. The increased risk is due to the sheer number of transactions, hacking attempts, and ecommerce fraud attempts, which is staggering. Even more staggering? According to a report by the Identity Theft Resource Center, while most consumers detect identity theft within three months about 16% of consumers won’t detect identity theft for three years. Wow.

One of the more surprising things I read on this topic is that stolen personal information was widely used to purchase very authentic looking “fake” paychecks and other documents online, which thieves used to open accounts and even rent apartments. Since chip cards are making it harder to commit credit card fraud, auto loan fraud is growing. And the thieves are creating “synthetic identities” where the fraudsters steal some of a consumers real information and combine it with fake information, such as using a new address for statements.

The consistent thread in all identity theft schemes is that a fraudster has a consumer’s personal information. Maybe not everything, but enough to convince someone else that the thief is really the identity of the victim. And the credit bureaus have that personal information. They have it all. The three credit reporting bureaus are goldmines for personal information for ID thieves, and these keepers of your info have been hacked by savvy criminals to get it.

The only option is to freeze your credit report. A “credit freeze” restricts access to your credit reports to themselves and currently open accounts. But not everyone took the steps required to freeze accounts, even if they were not looking to open new credit, because those freezes averaged about $30.00 and were only free AFTER they were a victim of ID theft. And there were additional fees to “thaw” the account for access by new lenders for a specified period of time. But now all of those fees are gone. You do not have to pay a fee anymore. New credit law changes, effective September 21, 2018, mean any consumer can freeze and unfreeze their credit file for free. Here’s what you need to know.

1. You have to contact each bureau individually to have the freeze placed on each.
Here are the contact links and numbers to do so. You will have to verify your identity with personal info to freeze your reports, so have that ready.

Equifax or 800-349-9960
Experian or 888-397-3742
TransUnion or 888-909-8872

2. You can get a free freeze for your children who are under 16. And you can also place a free freeze for anyone that you have a valid power of attorney for, when you are a fiduciary, guardian or a conservator.

3. You can still access your own credit reporting records and can order your free annual credit reports from www.annualcreditreport.com. Make sure you only use Annual Credit report, that’s the free one authorized by federal law.

4. Any current creditors or debt collectors will continue to have access after the freeze is placed.

For more information, you can read the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) directly from the Federal Trade Commission. I encourage every consumer to set aside time before the holidays to put freezes on their credit reports, which will help to protect themselves, their children, and people at risk, from identity theft.

 

Continue reading “Great News- We Now Get FREE Credit Freezes”

 

Around this time last year, the three credit reporting agencies had to change their rules (due to an agreement with several state’s attorney generals in 2015) surrounding reporting of a consumer’s medical debt in collections. Now, they basically have to give consumers a standard 180 day “grace period” before reporting medical collections on the consumer credit report. Another reporting change requires the bureaus to remove a past due medical bill that is later paid by insurance.

For many Americans, the increase in medical debt is due to higher deductibles and out of pocket costs for healthcare, timely payment by insurance to providers, and the decision by insurers that a provider was “out of network” resulting in a lower reimbursement and the outstanding costs passed on to the consumer. A fun little statistic related to the rules change is that up to 80% of bills submitted by providers to insurers are incorrect the first time. So insurance doesn’t pay them, the bills must be corrected and resubmitted for payment. This results in delays in settling medical bills. Sometimes for months.

The 180-day reporting delay is good for consumers with medical debt because these bills are often passed to collections quickly, within 30-60 days after the payment was due. Faster than many creditors will pass off non-medical debt accounts. This allows time for consumers to deal with insurance, pay their medical bills, and work on billing disputes even if the account is with collectors.

It is important to note that, while it is true that it will no longer have as big an impact on the “FICO” and VantageScore credit scoring models for 180 days, other credit scoring models that lenders use have not adopted this approach. So, you still need to watch your credit report if you are facing medical debts in collections.

Here are a few other things to consider if you or someone you know is facing medical debt:

• You are not alone. Around 43 million Americans had medical debt on their credit reports last year. The average amount of medical debt in collections was $579.00 last year. With 78% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, this is a large enough number to cause financial hardship.

• While medical debt should NOT be ignored, if you are struggling with debt, it should be given a lower priority than other consumer debt, such as credit cards and personal loans. To do this, the medical debt must remain a “medical-debt,” meaning do not borrow or pay these debts with a credit card.

• Collectors will often try to push you to pay the bill, even suggesting you just put the balance on a card. But if you pay the medical debt with a credit card, you can limit your ability to settle the debt, or seek financial assistance from the hospital or other agency. You can stop collectors from calling by making your request in writing. You just need to send a letter.

• There are statutes that protect consumers who owe medical debt from being turned away from the emergency room for medical care. And, according to the National Consumer Law Center:

“If you request financial assistance from a nonprofit hospital, the hospital cannot deny you care in any part of the hospital because of an old bill until it determines whether you are eligible for financial assistance. You usually have about eight months (240 days) from when you first received the old bill to request such financial assistance.”

• Medical debt is a big reason for bankruptcy, but not why you think. When people are too ill to work, income plummets, savings can be exhausted and often medical debt was transferred to credit cards.

Remember, you now have 180 days to get medical bills handled before they hit your Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion credit report. You can dispute anything erroneously reported and have the records of medical bills that were paid by insurance removed.

Many consumers have become wise to the ways of internet scammers, no longer falling for phishing attacks or clicking fraudulent links to their accounts. Many hackers and scammers are going after companies that hold the consumer data “secure.” With all of the recent data breaches on financial institutions,credit bureaus,and email companies everywhere, it’s natural to be a little wary of identity theft. The Equifax breach was particularly awful for consumers because particularly sensitive personal data was stolen such as where you grew up and your mother’s maiden name, the info for those two layer “security questions.”

To make matters worse, in my humble opinion, the guardians of your credit report (and mysteriously calculated “score”) actually charge consumers hard earned dollars for access to their OWN information. The nerve! But my feelings aside, checking your credit report is an important part of taking control of your money. The Fair Credit Reporting Act, FCRA, authorizes one free credit report each year from each of the three credit reporting bureaus. There is only one link that is “federally certified” so do not click into any of the 34 ads on the way to annualcreditreport.com

I do not generally recommend anyone order all of them at once. You get one a year from each bureau, so ordering one from one of the three bureaus every four months provides a continuous look throughout the year. You can look for unauthorized accounts, errors in reporting, suspicious activity and even addresses that are not yours. If you find something that shouldn’t be there, or there are balance issues, or additional addresses, you can file a “dispute” with the credit bureau so the issue can be investigated.

CAUTION: you can only file a dispute if something on your report is incorrect. There are a ton of “cure your credit report” scams out there, so beware. If your credit report has taken a hit due to debt issues, bankruptcy, or just poor money management, such as forgetting to mail the payment on time, it will take time to rebuild. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

If you are a victim of identity theft, you MUST take action as soon as you detect it. This includes filing a police report, contacting the lenders (who are also victims of the thief), putting a fraud alert or freezing your credit report. A step-by-step process is available from the Federal Trade Commission’s identity theft website. Yup, sadly that’s a thing.