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Part 2: Protecting Yourself Under the New Credit-Reporting LawBy Jane Bryant Quinn
Thursday, October 31, 1996
NEW YORK -- Did you know that the credit bureaus are selling your name, address, Social Security number and other identifying information? They sell it to banks that want to send you credit cards, catalog retailers, insurance marketers and other direct mailers.
Maybe you like getting catalogs and credit card solicitations, so it doesn't bother you to have your name on these lists. But it should.
A form of theft called "identity theft" is spreading fast. There are many ways that you can fall victim to this fraud, but one of them is to have your name on credit card marketing lists.
Identity thieves masquerade as you. They open fraudulent accounts in your name, or change the address on your credit cards and take over accounts you already have. They run up huge bills and leave you with the mess.
Creditors may not believe you when you say that you didn't use that card. Bill collectors may dun you. Liens may pile up on your property. Because of your apparent debts, you may lose your access to credit, be rejected for jobs and apartments, even be subject to arrest.
One way the thieves operate is to watch for junk mail offering low rate credit cards. They lift the solicitations from your mailbox or business and apply in your name, but putting down a different address.
The credit card and all subsequent statements go to that same address. You never know what hit you until you get the first dunning phone call.
Crooks have gotten credit cards in other people's names even though they used the wrong Social Security numbers, says the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) in Washington, D.C. Crooks can get accurate Social Security numbers, right off the Internet.
New amendments to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) require credit card mailers to disclose that they got your name from credit bureau lists, and tell you how to get off those lists.
You can do that today by telling the three major credit bureaus to quit selling your name. To get off the lists, call Experian/TRW at 800 353 0809 and Trans Union at 800 680 7293. In most states, you have to write Equifax at Equifax Options, P.O. Box 740123, Atlanta, Ga. 30374.
But believe it or not, you can only take your name off the lists drawn from personal credit histories, which are sold for credit card solicitations.
Credit bureaus can sell so called "header" information (the identifying items at the top, or head, of your credit report, such as name, address and Social Security number) whether you like it or not.
As these new amendments were passing through Congress, the credit industry fought for the right to sell even more data that could expose you to financial risk. Consumer protection groups prevailed, for now at least.
But you can expect the industry to try again, says U.S. PIRG's Ed Mierzwinski. Here's what they're asking Congress to let them do:
1. They want to exempt from the fair-credit law the sale of public record data. Under current law, bureaus can sell records of liens, court judgments, bankruptcies and so forth. But if your name is on the list, and that causes you to lose a loan, a job or an apartment, FCRA requires that you be told. If you're named in error (as you might, if a thief appropriated your identity), the bureau has to institute cleanup proceedings. The proposal backed by the credit industry would eliminate these rights.
2. Allow credit bureaus to sell information about your credit transactions to any business at all. At present, credit data can be sold only for specific purposes, such as evaluating customers who apply for credit, insurance, an apartment, a job or a bank account. At least, that's how the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) interprets the law.
The Chicago based credit bureau, Trans Union, is currently challenging the FTC's view in court. If it prevails, it's open season on selling credit information.
Even now, we're all up for sale- names, Social Security numbers, credit reports, driver's license numbers- all on the Net. Criminal rings can appropriate our lives.
The criminals are aided by banks, that send new credit cards to any address an applicant wants; by credit bureaus, that readily accept address changes for credit reports; by stores, that grant instant credit; and by certain state and local governments, that use Social Security numbers for driver's licenses and make those numbers publicly available.
Too much personal information is sloshing around the Internet. Alarms should be flashing everywhere.
Jane Bryant Quinn welcomes letters on money issues and problems but cannot offer individual financial advice.