Identity fraud: Can your credit report keep you safe?

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ID fraudHave you ever gotten one of those letters from your employer, creditor, municipality or school that includes the words "your data has been compromised?" It's usually followed – I know from experience – by a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. New data from Javelin Strategies shows that's one of those gut instincts you'd do well to listen to.

No surprise that 2009 – plagued by a tough financial scenario all around – showed a pretty sharp uptick in identity fraud. According to the study, you had a one in 20 chance of being a victim, an 11% increase from a year ago.

For young adults, the risk is about one in 16, because of their roommate-filled, computer-sharing lives. And for small business owners, it's 1 in 13 because of the sheer volume of their transactions. But among folks who got one of the aforementioned data letters, the risk of fraud leapfrogs to 1 in 4.

And yet, what do the majority of people who receive these letters do? "Ignore them," says Javelin's James Van Dyke. Frequently the letters come with offers of a free year or more of credit monitoring. They don't get much attention either.

"Consumers may not believe the offers are legit," says John Ulzheimer, director of education for credit.com and the author of "You're Nothing But A Number." "They also may not feel comfortable handing over the personal information needed to enroll in credit monitoring. And even though these credit monitoring services are free for some period, most people realize they'll be hit up for a subscription after that."

The rate of response to these offers from data letters is a surprisingly slim 10 to 13%, according to Raul Vargas, certified fraud examiner for Identity Theft 911.

When consumers are notified by their employers (particularly a trusted human resources department) or their local municipality, the numbers are a bit higher. When it's a financial institution sending the letter, the response rates are lower.

But overall during the past few years the response rate has been headed in the same direction: Down. Vargas acknowledges that breach notifications are going out at such a "huge, alarming rate" that consumers have gotten jaded. He also notes that some people have purchased credit monitoring on their own.

But overall, this lack of response is not a good thing for consumers. So what should you do when (let's not pretend with an if here) you next receive a letter? React.

At the very least start pulling your free credit report from annualcreditreport.com three times a year to be sure that you aren't seeing any inaccuracies in your file. You get one freebie from each bureau every twelve months; pull one every four on a rotating basis to stay on top of things.

Even better, put a fraud alert or freeze on your account with each of the three bureaus (Experian.com, Equifax.com and Transunion.com). (A fraud alert is free, a freeze costs about $10 to put on and take off unless you've been victimized.) This should stop credit from being issued in your name without you being notified. And if you are offered a monitoring service for free – as I was when my employment data fell off the back of a truck – take it.

Unlike with the much (and rightly) maligned freecreditreport.com, you will not be asked for your credit card number, so you will not be charged once your free period is up. They can and likely will try to sell you into sticking with the program – in fact, notes Ulzheimer, you can count on them marketing directly to your fears -- but you can ignore those offers or simply say no.

Then – and this Javelin reports is on the upswing – file a police report. Nearly half of all victims did this last year up from 33% the year before, one of the reasons Van Dyke says we saw double the number of reported arrests and triple the prosecutions.

"In previous years law enforcement didn't have the training," he said. "But we're finally catching up with this crime."

Jean Chatzky is an award winning journalist and best-selling author. Her most recent book is
"Money 911." Check out Jean's blog at jeanchatzky.com and learn more about the The Debt Diet Online.
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