Identity Theft Sure Does Suck.
August 20, 2009 7:51 AM   Subscribe

Help me help my fiancé recover from identity theft. (Please?)

....question about identify theft....sorry for the somewhat lengthy setup. Thanks in advance for your advice!

Backstory:
I am getting married next year in June (yay!) As my wife to be and I have moved ahead with planning for the big event, we also have been seriously considering the purchase of a home.
We are both in our mid 20s and live in Chicagoland. I have finished college and am employed full time in a relatively stable industry. She works part time and is a full time graduate student.

We both checked our credit reports this week to be sure that everything was in order. Thankfully, mine came back just fine without any errors or problems.

...not so much for the fiancé.
We were shocked and horrified to discover last night that over 20 accounts she was not aware of and did not open were listed on her report. In all, just over $10,000 in charges between various retail stores, and a credit card or two.

To make matters worse, almost all of them are now listed as 'charged off' / 'in collections', and various collections firms also show up on her report.

Oddly, the entire history of 'bad stuff' goes back about 3 years, but she has not received one call from a collector or received any odd bills in the mail, even though her correct contact information is listed on the credit report.

She is extremely responsible with her finances and always pays her bills on time. There are 4 accounts 'in good standing' that we know to actually be hers.

We have only seen 2 out of 3 reports so far, because we were not able to gain access to the third one online. For the third report (Transunion), we aren't able to get past the identity verification step because it asks for the last 4 digits of certain account numbers, but the accounts they are asking about are ones she didn't open, so she doesn't know the numbers and therefore can't verify her identity. (Unfortunately, the account numbers are not listed on the other 2 reports.) We will be calling Transunion to get that third report.

We immediately contacted Equifax and had them add a fraud flag to her report. They will then contact Transunion and Experian on our behalf to get flags set up with them too. Hopefully that will begin to stop the bleeding by preventing most types of new accounts from being opened. What it will not do is stop currently open accounts from being used, so that needs to be addressed next.

This FTC: website has been very helpful so far.

We will be getting copies of the credit reports, identifying the fraudulent accounts, filing a complaint with the FTC, filing a police report, and then using the form letters on the site to request the account information / application information from the various retailers/credit card companies with the questionable accounts. From there, we can provide our police report and documentation to the security/fraud departments of the various retailers and credit card companies to get the accounts closed. We can then send our Identity Theft Report to the credit reporting agencies to try to get the items removed. Hopefully.

Thankfully, my credit report is just fine and my FICO score is in the top possible bracket....on my own, with MY income and OUR down payment, I should not have a problem qualifying for the mortgage we need. I should be able to move forward with the home buying process using only my name and credit while we work on getting this disaster cleaned up, so all is not lost.

Questions:
I know that YANML, et. al.....just looking for some opinions. Here is what I'd love to know:

- Has this happened to you or anyone you know? What was the process of fixing the mess really like? How long did it take? Any advice? Is this too big of a problem to realistically tackle ourselves, and if so, are there any firms you know of that can help?

- Should I only be contacting the original retailer(s) about the fraud? (Meaning ignore the collectors). I know from previous questions here how evil they can be.

- When we get married, can I be held responsible for any of this fraudulent debt if for some reason it is not resolved through the above process? Will my own credit be damaged? How can I avoid being held accountable for it if it comes to that?

- When we placed the credit flag last night, Equifax immediately tried to sell us their credit monitoring service for $14/month. That felt slimy. Does anyone have any experience with it? Is it worth it?

- Is there anything else I should be asking?

Thanks for humoring me. I think I used up my questing asking privileges for like 6 months with this one.
posted by mockjovial to Work & Money (6 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Does your soon-to-be-wife have a fairly common name, especially for your area? It is entirely possible her file got "combined" with that of someone else and the reporting companies are simply showing the wrong information. This happens a lot more often than identity theft. I've had it happen for years. My dad and I have the same name, except for our middle initial, and, after living in the same house for ~20 years, we had virtually identical credit reports and driving histories, even though he's about 30 years older than me.

First, dispute everything with the reporting company directly. Simply mark every account on there you don't recognize as "not mine." The reporting company will--theoretically--go back to the entity that placed the entry and say "hey, you sure this is her's? Prove it." If the entity can't, or if it doesn't respond, the entry will be dropped in 30 days.

Note that any actions you take at this point may awaken sleeping collection agencies, so be prepared to get phone calls or letters about it. If someone does call, respond to that contact with a simple "This Is Not Mine" and advise the caller (as applicable) that you will only handle this matter via mail, since there's fraud afoot you want to keep a paper trail, and to stop calling immediately. If they write, respond with a certified letter stating that you are disputing the validity and ownership of the account and demand that the creditor prove the account is yours, as well as pointing out that you have apparently been the victim of identity theft.

Once you have done all of the disputes on the report, any that won't come off will need to be contacted. Unfortunately, only the entity that placed the entry can remove it--other than the reporting company--so you will need to write to the address given on the report. Provide no information beyond what is on the report, and do not sign the letter with your normal signature, especially if you are writing to a collection company. These companies and and will be ruthless, in many cases, so don't give them any more information than necessary. (If you read creditboards.com there are even instances of some sleazeballs taking signatures from letters and pasting them onto "admissions" that the debt is valid) If you are particularly paranoid about contacting the collection companies directly, you can hire a lawyer to write "go away, not mine" letters on your behalf. These should be inexpensive, and you may even get a half hour of legal consultation time for your fee. If there's a law school near you, ask if one of their students--under the supervision of a licensed attorney--would be willing to write a few for you as part of their studies of contract law.

As you noted, I'm not a or your lawyer, but: Illinois is not a community property state and, even if it was, debt or property acquired before a marriage doesn't become part of the marital estate even in a community property state. That said, once you are married it is possible any sleazeball collectors who pop up may try to collect from you, so watch your credit report. You don't have to sign up for Equifax's monitoring service but I would sign up for one for you and your wife.

I mentioned them earlier, but you may want to take your questions to creditboards.com. There's a lot of savvy people there who have dealt with all kinds of credit issues, collection companies and the Big Three reporting companies. They've been helpful to me in the past.

Good luck!
posted by fireoyster at 8:23 AM on August 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh, and unless you just have a bunch of cash and almost no free time, don't pay someone to clean up her credit report. There's virtually nothing they will do that you can't do yourself. I mentioned having a lawyer write "go away" letters to the sleazeball collection companies because then the lawyer's office becomes point of contact for any replies, thus leaving you one step removed from any annoying phone calls. It also helps convince those companies you're serious about the debt not being yours, so they tend to not push because there's probably not any profit in it. Hiring a lawyer is definitely not required; you can certainly write strongly-worded letters yourself.

Everything goes certified mail, as well. This costs, but provides proof that you told them it's not yours, if need be.
posted by fireoyster at 8:26 AM on August 20, 2009


Get a security freeze on her account. You might want to do it for your own as well for peace of mind, but it will cost you a small fee. For her it will be free (the fee is waived for victims of identity theft).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:39 AM on August 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the answers so far. I should have mentioned that I signed up for Trusted ID two years ago. I get monthly dashboard reports and they keep a perpetual fraud flag on all 3 reporting agencies for me. So far, so good.

A credit freeze is a good idea. I'll take her police report when we have it and get the freeze set up.

She does not have a common name, but that is a good thought, fireoyster. Oh, and I'll certainly look at creditboards.com.

Fireoyster, when you say "Simply mark every account on there you don't recognize as "not mine." what do you mean? That sounds like somethign that Equifax was telling me that their credit monitoring service could do. Perhaps then she should sign up for it.
posted by mockjovial at 8:45 AM on August 20, 2009


Don't be surprised if you are unable to get a police report, at least if my experiences with ID theft are any measure of normal. My spouse's car was broken into and a wallet taken. We got a call from Nordstrom THAT DAY telling us that someone was trying to use our credit card. They were arrested and prosecuted but... no police report was ever issued to us despite our repeated requests.

Later, we found a fraudulent cell phone account had been opened in another state to the tune of $5K despite the temporary 90 day fraud alert we had placed on our credit reporting accounts. Also, a driver's license issued in my spouse's name in another state. My spouse's Social Security information had been changed so that the address was in yet another state.

It took several years of vigilance and even the help of a state senator (who was looking for cases to support an anti ID theft bill) to get things straightened out but, still... no police report was ever issued and we were never able to obtain a true, long standing, fraud alert on our accounts.

At least in Washington State, no report is required for a freeze but a freeze is not a fraud alert.

Even if you do have a fraud alert, whether 90 day temp or 7 year, as we found out, many companies don't do a credit check, especially cell phone companies. They have, apparently, found that it is cheaper to deal with fraud after the fact than to pay the credit reporting agencies the fees to check.
posted by bz at 9:45 AM on August 20, 2009


When it happened to me, I called the police where it happened (a state I've never lived in) and asked to file a report. They were hesitant but relented eventually. I sent a copy of it to all the companies where I supposedly held accounts. That gave my denial of the accounts a bit more believability and they were taken off my credit report. Ask to talk to the company's fraud department when you call them. Take very good notes when you call the companies (date, time, who you spoke with & what they said, et cetera) and keep EVERYTHING together so you can reference it later.

Also, truecredit.com helped a lot in tracking down all the accounts.
posted by JV at 5:45 PM on August 20, 2009


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