Preventing Fraud and Identity Theft
The 1996 Credit Repair Organizations Act prohibits a variety of false and misleading statements, as well as fraud by credit repair organizations (CROs). CROs may not receive payment before any promised service is "fully performed." Services must be under written contract, which must include a detailed description of the services and contract performance time. CROs must provide the consumer with a separate written disclosure statement describing the consumer's rights before entering into the contract. And consumers can sue to recover the greater of the amount paid or actual damages, punitive damages, costs, and attorney's fees for violations of the Act.
If you encounter a CRO that promises to remove negative items from your credit reports it is safe to assume it’s a scam. In exchange for a fee it will promise to pester the credit reporting companies until they wipe out your debts and bankruptcy records. It will string you along saying the process will take several months. By then you may be out hundreds or even thousands of dollars. In the meantime, debts can stay on your credit record for up to seven years, and a Chapter 7 bankruptcy can remain for up to 10 years. If you think you were duped by a CRO you should call the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Response Center at (877) 382-4357.
To keep from being scammed you should avoid any company that does any of the following:
- Wants you to pay for credit repair before they provide any services,
- Will not tell you your legal rights,
- Will not tell you what you can do on your own at no cost,
- Tells you not to contact a credit reporting bureau directly,
- Advises you to dispute all negative items in your credit report, or
- Suggests you create a new credit identity, e.g., by applying for an Employer Identification Number to use instead of your SSN.
Here are some things you can do to improve your credit.
- Create a new credit identity, e.g., by applying for an Employer Identification Number to use instead of your SSN.
- Check your credit reports regularly for mistakes or collections you didn’t know about. Free copies are available annually from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, the three nationwide consumer credit reporting bureaus, by visiting www.AnnualCreditReport.com or calling (877) 322-8228, a service created by these companies. Contact the reporting bureaus in writing about any mistakes or disputed collections. If a mistake is confirmed you can ask the reporting company to send a corrected report to prospective lenders.
- Check that past-due accounts older than seven years from the first date of delinquency have been removed.
- Challenge any that are still on the report. Include copies of documents that support your position and a copy of the credit report. Send them to the reporting bureau by certified mail.
- Pay down or pay off outstanding debt. Deal with those with the highest interest rates first.
- Develop a plan to pay off high-interest credit card debts. Advice on planning is available from the National Endowment for Financial Education’s website at www.smartaboutmoney.org. Paying the monthly minimum due is very expensive. It will also take a very long time to pay off the balance. Consider the following alternatives: (1) use savings or investments, especially those that are earning less than the debt interest rate, to pay down the balance, (2) reduce expenses in order to make greater payments, (3) take out a loan at a lower-interest rate to pay off the balance, and (4) stop charging things on the card.
- Try to negotiate a lower interest rate or late fees if you are having trouble paying a debt. Speak to a supervisor who has authority to change the terms of your loan.
- Consider seeing a credit counselor if you can’t handle your debts on your own. Consultations are usually free. Two organizations that can refer you to a counselor are the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. You can call the former at (800) 388-2227 or visit its website at www.nfcc.org. You can call the latter at (866) 703-8787 or visit its website at www.aiccca.org.
- Get a secured credit care if you need to re-establish your credit. Such a card requires a security deposit to secure your charges to it. And they usually have fees that regular cards do not have. Look for cards with reasonable fees.
- If you get a prepaid card to establish a good credit history, select one that reports positive monthly payments to three major credit reporting bureaus. Be aware that such cards come at a steep price and do not have the financial protections of bank debit cards. Before buying a card make sure you know about all the fees and understand the small print in the cardholder agreement. This information is usually only available on the company’s website. For more information on prepaid cards, see the Consumers Union paper entitled Prepaid Cards: Second Tier Bank Account Substitutes dated September 2010 at www.sdut.us/prepaidplastic.
These and other things you can do to repair your credit are explained on a page entitled Building a Better Credit Report on the FTC’s website at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/credit/cre03.shtm#scams.