One of the most popular scams among identity thieves is to cobble together enough information about a given person to complete a change of address form either electronically through the U.S. Postal Service website or in person at a local post office. Alternatively, if fraudsters are able to gain online access to one of your credit card accounts, they may be able to divert monthly statements to an address of their choosing by updating your listed contact information.
The purpose of doing so is to prevent you from noticing that charges are being racked up in your name until well after the damage has been done. Here’s what you need to do now to confirm what’s going on and ultimately set your credit record straight.
Phase 1: Verify It’s Not A Legitimate Address
- Consider Common Cases Of Address Confusion: It’s usually pretty easy to tell if you have a connection to a given address, but there are some situations where a legitimate address change could understandably be construed as fraudulent when you first see it. For example, if you co-signed a loan or credit card for a friend or relative who ended up moving, that person’s new address would be added to your credit report. The same would be true if you are an authorized user on a credit card account.
- Review All Three Of Your Major Credit Reports: You already have your TransUnion credit report from WalletHub, and while Experian and Equifax credit reports contain largely the same information, there are some differences in terms of their data sources and the financial institutions that use them. Seeing how, and if, this suspicious address change is listed on your other reports may provide additional context into whether it’s fraudulent or legitimate. This will also give you a chance to review the other addresses listed on each of your reports to make sure they’re accurate, which is extremely important given the growing sophistication of identity theft tactics.
"People always overlook this," says Carrie Kreskie, director of the Identity Theft Institute at Hodges University. "Creditors know identity thieves will use different addresses than the victim, so the creditors will no longer issue credit to an address that’s not associated with the credit report. So the criminals are now tying fraudulent addresses to the credit report months before they even apply for the credit."
Everyone is entitled to a free copy of each of their major credit reports every 12 months through the government-sponsored website AnnualCreditReport.com. If you have been turned down for credit in the past 60 days, you also have the right to a free copy of the credit report the lender used to make its decision.
- Call The Issuers Of All Open Accounts & Confirm They Have The Correct Address: It’s hard to tell just from looking at your credit report which of your open credit card and loan accounts the new address is associated with. Just to be safe, it’s a good idea to call all the issuers of your open accounts to make sure they have the right address for you. This is critical to ensuring that you, and not an unauthorized third party, receive important correspondence related to your account. Even if you haven’t used a given account in a while, there’s still a chance it could be abused if it’s still active.
- Update Account Passwords & PINs, Just In Case: In order to limit a case of suspected identity theft to an unauthorized change of address and prevent further intrusion into your financial life, run anti-virus software on your computer then update all passwords and account PINs associated with your open credit cards and loans.
Making sure your computer is well protected may help patch up a vulnerability that allowed your personal information to be obtained in the first place. Updating account security thereafter helps prevent further incursions and allows you to update account preferences (e.g., paperless statements) for more controlled visibility of account activity.
Phase 2: Sound The Alarm
- 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, but freezing and unfreezing your reports is now free for everyone.
"It is the best, cheapest, and most effective thing that someone can do," said Steven J. Weisman, a senior lecturer of law, taxation and financial planning at Bentley University and author of numerous books about identity theft.
Another thing you’ll want to do is 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 one year, even if you lift the security freeze on a report, warning potential creditors that you might be a victim of identity theft.
- 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 unrecognized address. This will enable you to file an official police report, which, together with your FTC affidavit, will comprise your "Identity Theft Report."
People often are hesitant to report a seemingly minor sign of identity theft to the police, but it’s important to remember that taking this step — which may be as simple as filling out and submitting a form at the station — is more of a procedural milestone than the beginning of an active investigation by law enforcement.
- Dispute Addresses You Don’t Recognize With The Respective Credit Bureau(s): While you can certainly dispute an unauthorized address earlier in the process, first obtaining your FTC affidavit and police report may help the investigation proceed more efficiently. For each credit report on which you find an inaccurate address, follow the respective bureau’s steps for reporting and disputing the issue (see below). The credit bureau will then send that creditor a request for verification. "Generally within 30 days, the source must verify your account data," said Michael Bruemmer, vice president of consumer protection at Experian.
Hopefully, this process will result in the removal of any inaccurate addresses on your credit reports and enable you to handle any related identity theft. Keep in mind, however, that depending on how the unauthorized address change happened, you may also need to get in touch with organizations such as the U.S. Postal Service, the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service or your state’s department of motor vehicles in order to clean up collateral damage and prevent future fraud.
Furthermore, there are a few additional identity theft prevention steps that you may want to take, just to be safe, given that address changes can be the precursor to other types of fraud.