Identity theft serves up double
threat to victims
Identity-theft victims don't make the mess. But they do have to
clean it up.
"There's no one who can do it other than
the consumer," says Maxine Sweet, vice president of public
education for Experian. "Yes, they're a victim. Yes, it's a
terrible crime. But there's no one else who can do it."
New initiatives can help identity-theft victims
start the long process of proving to creditors, collection agencies
and law enforcement officials that they are who they say they are.
But the burden of proof still rests squarely
on victims' shoulders.
Drowning in paperwork
The Federal Trade Commission provides standardized fraud declaration
reports that victims can file with banks and creditors. Instead
of filling out a separate fraud packet for each creditor, victims
fill out a single fraud declaration and send signed copies to each
Theft Affidavit is most valuable when a new account has been
opened in the victim's name. The FTC advises victims to contact
each of their creditors to verify that they will accept this form.
Most do, but some companies will require more or different forms.
This initiative could save victims time and
quite a few headaches.
Nicole Robinson, an identity theft victim from
Maryland, spent much of 2000 contacting creditors. She had to find
her way through dozens of different fraud notification procedures.
An impostor had attempted to open more than 60 credit accounts in
"The whole thing was just like a nightmare
and nobody was helping," Robinson says. "All the legwork
had to be done by me."
Unfortunately, that's how the credit reporting
system works. A credit agency will not remove inaccurate information
from a credit report unless a creditor says to. A credit agency
simply records information sent by creditors. It does not judge
the accuracy of the data it stores.
"That's not our role and not within our
capability," Sweet says. "We're not like some jury to
say 'You're right, consumer. You're wrong, creditor.' We don't play
When a consumer disputes information on a credit
report, the credit agency contacts the creditor and passes along
the consumer complaint. The creditor then checks its records and
decides whether the data it furnished to the credit agency is correct.
If the creditor stands by its information, the data stays on the
consumer's credit report.
Fraud alert to the rescue?
The nation's three credit-reporting agencies have streamlined the
fraud alert process.
Once an identity-theft victim calls any one
of the three credit-reporting agencies, Trans
that agency will contact the other two. The toll-free call will
automatically trigger a fraud alert to be placed on the victim's
credit report at each agency within 24 hours. In addition, the victim
will be automatically opted out of preapproved offers of credit
and insurance for two years, and upon request, receive free copies
of their credit report from each agency within three business days.
A fraud alert asks future creditors to contact
the victim before any new credit is approved. The purpose of these
alerts is to help prevent an impostor from applying for and receiving
more credit in a victim's name.
Needing to make just one call
helps victims to be able to act quickly when fraud strikes. No more
maneuvering their way through the voice mail systems of the three
major credit agencies, each with a separate process for reporting
fraud. No more waiting weeks for a credit report to arrive.
Eric Graves, whose teen-age son was an identity-theft
victim in 1998, was shocked by the amount of red tape involved in
requesting copies of his son's credit report.
"Even in the way they require you to prove
that you are who you say you are. I had to fax all kinds of different
things to them just to get a report," Graves says.
"You're sort of treading in waters you're
not certain of, and you're wasting a lot of time."
The lonely battle
Identity-theft victims are urged to contact creditors on their own.
Creditors receive heaps of consumer disputes from credit agencies
every month. Mixed in with complaints from identity-theft and fraud
victims are protests from folks contesting negative, but accurate,
"The guilty protest as much as the innocent,"
The best way for fraud victims to stand out
amid all these disputes is to contact creditors individually. Unfortunately,
there's no way to "make" a creditor or a collection agency
believe an identity-theft victim.
"The creditors were like 'We don't care.
We didn't lose anything,'" Robinson says. "The creditors
who did lose something ... it wasn't a big deal to them. It was
a drop in the bucket to them."
Robinson had to threaten to sue several creditors
before they would remove inaccurate information from her credit
There also doesn't seem to be a way to make
creditors heed the fraud alerts that victims place on their credit
reports. A fraud alert is supposed to stop a creditor from granting
more credit to an impostor. But an alert will only work if a creditor
takes the time to read it. This doesn't always happen. Plus, some
creditors grant credit without even pulling a person's credit report.
So identity-theft victims end up monitoring
their credit reports and disputing inaccurate information long after
learning of the crime. It's the only way to keep their credit reports
"Be persistent. Stay after it. Get all
the information you can," says Robert Greer, an identity-theft
victim from New Hampshire.
"Once you're a victim, you're a victim.
You can't undo that. It's a matter of minimizing the damage."