Identity theft is a serious concern in today’s digital age. We manage everything with technology, from our online bill payments to digital credit card statements and even paying for purchases with our smart devices. A technology-centered world leaves us vulnerable to breaches, though, and the end result can be devastating… to our money and our credit.
Identity theft can take on many forms, but typically involves someone using your name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, or other identifying information to open fraudulent accounts. These accounts are often used to “buy” items on your good name; when the accounts go unpaid, though, it’s your credit that takes the hit. And sometimes, it can take you a long time to even realize the fraud has happened.
Here are six ways that you can tell if someone has been using your credit. If you see any of these pop up, take action quickly! Doing so can mean saving yourself from years of credit woes.
Your Credit Score Drops
If you monitor your credit score at all, you may notice that it fluctuates from month-to-month. This is normal… assuming that we are talking about a few points. If your score suddenly drops by 10-15 points or more, though, and you haven’t done anything to cause it, this could be cause for alarm.
Credit score drops related to fraud could be for a number of reasons. Someone could be applying for credit in your name, racking up hard inquiries with various lenders. A fraudulent new account could have been opened, dropping your average age of accounts and impacting your score. Or, someone could have maxed out a credit-based account (an existing one or a fraudulent one that they opened), botching your credit utilization in the process.
You could also see a credit score drop if an unpaid account goes to collections and is reported. Once this goes on record with the credit bureaus, it will immediately cause your credit score to plummet – unfortunately, for some, this could be the first sign they see of identity theft.
You Get Denied for an Application
If you know that you have average or above-average credit, you probably expect that most of your credit-based applications are approved. So, you would likely be surprised when an application is denied, especially if you weren’t expecting any issues. Whether you’re trying to get a new loan, open a credit card, or even rent an apartment, credit checks are often run to ensure creditworthiness. If you’ve had fraudulent (and negative) credit activity post in your name, you might only find out when a new application of yours is denied.
Bill Collectors Start Calling
You pay your bills on time. You keep track of your spending. So, why on earth is a debt collector suddenly calling your house?
If you know that you’re up-to-date on your bills but start getting calls from collectors, you might have an identity theft issue on your hands.
Identity thieves open accounts in your name, but they don’t exactly pay the bills when the charges come up due. Instead, the accounts go delinquent and, eventually, they are reported to the credit bureaus. The debts may even be sold to debt collectors, who will begin harassing the real you for payment... even if you had nothing to do with the account.
You Find Unknown Charges on Your Account
Most of us are guilty of making purchases that we then forget about. “Did I go to Starbucks last week? I don’t remember that. Wait, I bought something on Amazon?” (I’m definitely guilty of that last one, only remembering when a box shows up at my doorstep.) If you start seeing charges on your credit or debit card that you don’t remember, though, it might be due to fraud. Thieves don’t always go for the jugular, so don’t assume that small charges can’t be fraudulent. In fact, some theft is the result of multiple, small charges that many people wouldn’t even notice. This makes it incredibly important to stay on top of your statements and question anything that isn’t familiar.
You Start Getting Strange Mail
If you get a statement in the mail for an account you don’t recognize, or charges that you don’t think you made, be on high alert. This may very well indicate theft.
Whether you get information welcoming you to your new credit card (which you didn’t open) or a bill for medical services you never received, you might be an identity theft victim. Be sure to keep an eye on the mail you receive and open anything you don’t recognize… even if you assume it’s trash. It might be your first alert to fraud.
Your Info is Stolen
If your personal information is stolen – either because mail goes missing from your mailbox, your email is hacked, or a company you’ve used has a data breach – you are ripe for identity theft. This doesn’t mean that you’re a victim yet, necessarily, but it does mean that you are now more susceptible.
If your information is compromised, you should take extra steps to protect yourself. Freeze your credit, alert the credit bureaus, change your account numbers, and update all passwords. Then, be sure to monitor your credit for at least a year or two, in case suspicious activity appears.
What to Do
If you notice fraudulent activity using your name or credit, you might be overwhelmed. After all, a thief can do some serious damage to your credit score – and therefore, your financial situation – before you even notice a problem. This is why it’s important to stay alert.
Monitor your credit regularly, using either credit report subscriptions or free services, like those offered by some credit cards and banks. Each year, request your free report from each of the three bureaus. If you see anything strange, investigate. Find a fraudulent account or error? Report it immediately to the credit bureaus and the company directly. Let your credit card company know if a charge is not yours, and as soon as possible; you may not be responsible for any of it, if you report it soon enough.
Identity theft is terrifying and can have serious repercussions. With a vigilant attitude, though, and some regular monitoring, you can protect yourself… and your credit.