Civil judgments are one of the three main types of public records listed on credit reports, along with tax liens and bankruptcies. A judgment indicates that you were sued and the court ruled in the plaintiff’s favor, which means you are likely on the hook for certain court costs in addition to the amount you were sued for.
Judgments can stem from unpaid credit card and loan balances as well from unfulfilled child support and alimony obligations. They can also be a sign of identity theft or improper notice of court dates, each of which would be a reason for concern in its own right. Such malfeasance could also result in the judgment being thrown out and any notations related to it being removed from your credit reports.
Below are the steps you should take to confirm what’s going on and protect your identity. Make sure to take detailed notes and keep copies of all documents that you either send or receive.
- Seek Information From The Court: Calling or visiting the website of the court where you were supposedly sued (listed on your credit report) should provide valuable information for your personal investigation. Your name and the case number, if you have it, should be all that’s needed to access the court’s records and thereby learn more about the plaintiff as well as the timeline of the case.
This, in turn, will either help you realize the judgment is accurate – in which case you should pay the amount owed as soon as possible – or give you clues about the potential identity theft and fraud that led to the court proceedings.
- Place A Security Freeze (And Fraud Alert) On All Three Reports: A security freeze completely prevents most parties from viewing your credit report, though exceptions do exist, such as for the government, existing creditors, collection agencies, creditors who prescreen you for offers and yourself. You must contact TransUnion, Experian and Equifax individually to put a freeze on each report, and a fee may apply each time you freeze and unfreeze a report.
However, the cost — $2 to $15, depending on your state — pales in comparison to the value of gaining complete control of your credit reports and thereby preventing anyone from applying for or opening a credit account without your consent. That’s especially true when you consider that many states allow the elderly and victims of identity theft to freeze and unfreeze their credit reports for free.
You’ll also want to ask TransUnion to put a fraud alert on your credit report. TransUnion will be legally required to notify the other two major bureaus, and you will receive a confirmation letter from each one after the alert has been added to your file. It will remain in place for at least 90 days, even if you lift the security freeze on a report, warning potential creditors that you might be a victim of identity theft.
Neither of these steps will solve the specific issue of the unknown civil judgment on your credit report, but they will help prevent additional fraud from costing you more money and further complicating matters.
- Confirm Your Address With The Postal Service & All Creditors: An unrecognized civil judgment is a clear sign that your identity could be compromised, as you should have received numerous warnings in the mail about past due balances and forthcoming legal action before this notation showed up on your credit report. One of the most common ways that identity thieves delay their victims from finding out such situations is by changing the victim’s address so that he or she does not receive critical correspondence.
Making sure the U.S. Postal Service has your correct address on file will help you avoid missing government notices, and you can do so by creating a “My USPS” online account. Confirming your address with creditors will serve a similar purpose, in addition to making it harder for identity thieves to rack up additional balances in your name. This can be done by calling your creditors or logging into your online accounts.
- Consult An Attorney: A civil judgment is a very serious official record that can result in significant disruption to your financial life, including the loss of money and property, if not dealt with promptly. Getting this judgment overturned can also be a complex process that is difficult for an individual to successfully undertake alone. It’s therefore best to consult an attorney who specializes in fraudulent civil judgments fairly early in the process. At the very least, you should be able to get a free initial consultation, during which you can ask important questions and seek advice for how to proceed. Given the magnitude of this issue, however, retaining the services of a reputable attorney is preferable.
- File An Identity Theft Complaint With The FTC: You can file a formal identity theft complaint with the Federal Trade Commission through its online complaint form. Once you have submitted your complaint, the FTC will generate an Identity Theft Affidavit. It is very important that you save and print this document, as it can only be viewed once through the online system.
The FTC Identity Theft Affidavit is a critical supporting document for investigations into suspected identity theft.
- File A Report With Your Local Police Department: Bring a copy of your FTC Identity Theft Affidavit to your local police department, along with a government-issued ID, proof of your address (e.g., a mortgage or utility bill) and any additional documentation you have concerning the suspicious lien. This will enable you to file an official police report, which, together with your FTC affidavit, will comprise your “Identity Theft Report.”
Hopefully, taking these steps will enable you to get to the bottom of the suspicious judgment and minimize the related financial repercussions. The key is to have the judgment removed from the public record. Once that’s accomplished, you can dispute the judgment on your credit report with TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. Finally, you may also want to take a few additional measures to shore up the security of your personal information and prevent future identity theft incidents.