How to Make Sure Someone Doesn’t Steal Your Tax Refund

Identity thieves filed 787,000 fraudulent returns in 2016. Here's how to make sure it doesn't happen to you this year.

Americans taxpayers are too lax about identity theft, according to a poll from CyberScout.

A survey conducted by the data security and identity protection firm found more than half of Americans aren’t worried about tax fraud, despite federal reports showing identity thieves filed 787,000 fraudulent returns in 2016, which adds up to more than $4 billion in fraud.

The survey also found that only 35% of taxpayers ask their preparers to use two-factor authentication (which is stronger than a single password) to protect their information. On top of that, only 18% use an encrypted USB drive to save tax documents that contain sensitive information. When it comes to choosing a tax preparer, 50% of respondents said they chose their tax preparers online, didn’t screen them beforehand or weren’t sure how to evaluate a tax preparer at all. CyberScout said this puts consumers at risk of getting scammed. Finally, more than half (51%) of taxpayers expecting refund checks in the mail don’t use a locked mailbox.

These findings come from a nationally representative survey of more than 1,500 Americans aged 18 and over commissioned by CyberScout, using Google Consumer Survey.

“In tax season, it is crucial that everyone remain vigilant and on high alert to avoid tax-related identity theft or phishing schemes,” said Adam Levin, founder and chairman of CyberScout and author of “Swiped.” Levin is also the co-founder of Credit.com.

How Taxpayers Can Protect Themselves

Tax season is one of the busiest times for identity thieves, but there are steps taxpayers can take to protect themselves. Here’s what CyberScout recommends:

  • Use a password-protected Wi-Fi connection when filing your taxes. Use a long and complex password — not just for your Wi-Fi but also for any accounts you’re using during the tax-filing process.
  • Get your return via direct deposit. If you must receive a return check via mail, have it sent to a locked mailbox.
  • Ask your tax preparer to use two-factor authentication to protect your documents and personal information.
  • Use an encrypted USB drive to save sensitive tax documents.
  • Never give information to anyone who contacts you by phone or online claiming to be from the IRS. The IRS will never contact you this way.
  • Monitor your accounts and online identity for any signs that your identity has been stolen. For example, if you see a sudden, unexpected change in your credit scores, it could indicate your identity has been stolen. You can easily get a look at your credit by using our free credit report snapshot, which is updated every 14 days.

The IRS also keeps taxpayers updated on the latest scams on its website. In most cases, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You can find some more tips for avoiding common tax scams here.

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The post How to Make Sure Someone Doesn’t Steal Your Tax Refund appeared first on Credit.com.

How Long Might it Take for Credit Behaviors to Impact Your Credit Score?

If you’ve put a lot of work into establishing good credit habits—you’ve been making sure to pay every bill on time and you’ve been paying down your credit card debt—you might be wondering just how long it’ll be before you see these actions reflected in your credit score. The time between when you exhibit positive credit behavior and when credit for that behavior shows up on your report depends on many factors.

While there are some basic timelines for certain items on your credit report, every consumer’s experience is different. What follows are some things to think about if you’re wondering how long it might take to see your actions impact your credit score, and how long certain items might remain on your report.

Understanding your credit behavior

“Establishing a timeline will be unique to each consumer and dependent on what shape their credit report is in,” says Jo Kerstetter, spokesperson for Money Management International.

The reason behind this individual variation lies with your lenders—the credit card companies, banks, and mortgage companies who report your data to the CRAs. Lenders track and share your payment history, including a record of whether your payments were made in full and on time, but there is no universal date for when they share this information with the CRAs. Additionally, while some lenders may report behavior to all of the CRAs, others will report to only one CRA or to none at all, which accounts for the variations seen between your three credit scores.

Tom Coates, director of Consumer Credit of Des Moines, agrees. “Nothing significant is going to help you overnight,” he says, but adds that positive behaviors may add up over time.

Regularly reviewing your credit report may help you gain a better understanding of your past and current behavior and how your payment history may already be impacting your score. You are entitled to one annual free copy of your credit report from each of the three major CRAs. To request a copy of your report, visit Annualcreditreport.com.

Healthy credit habits

Your credit score may change daily, weekly, or only a few times throughout the month depending on how often your lenders report data to the CRAs. The important thing is to make sure you have been consistent in meeting payments.

“The key is to pay your bills on time every month,” says Kerstetter. Your payment history accounts for around 35 percent of your credit and is the largest factor in determining your score. While there are many factors that determine your score, one of the most important things to consider is to pay your bills on time, everytime.

“Positive information usually stays on your record as long as the accounts are open and in good standing,” Kerstetter says.

The next biggest contributing factor to determining your score is the amount owed across each of your accounts. Amounts owed account for about 30 percent of your score, which means that paying down a debt or carrying a lower total balance on your various lines of credit may also impact your score.

Late payments or bankruptcy

Negative information, such as late payments or a bankruptcy, may impact your score just as often as positive items, but where positive behavior is unlikely to fall off of your credit history, negative credit behavior has the opportunity to disappear—but only after varying lengths of time:

  • Hard inquiries. Hard inquiries typically fall off of your report after two years, but it may impact your score for even less time.
  • Late payments or similar negative behaviors are likely to remain on your credit report for up to seven years. An account left in collections can stay on for even longer, usually seven years and 180 days from the start of the payment delinquency, and unpaid tax liens can remain on you report for up to fifteen years.
  • Bankruptcy, generally remains on your credit history for up to 10 years however the exact amount of time will depend on the type of bankruptcy.

While it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how long it may take for certain behaviors to impact your score, by establishing positive credit habits and maintaining them consistently, you may be in a better position to better understand your entire personal financial picture.

“Sometimes people get so lost on trying to get a better score, they don’t have their basic finances and their budget where they ought to,” Coates says.

A Scheme You’ve Never Heard of Might Ruin Your Summer

Legendary Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis said, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

Never were truer words spoken when it comes to protecting your identity. When it comes to synthetic identity theft, you have to be extra vigilant.

Synthetic identity theft is committed in a variety of ways, ranging from simple (changing a few details like address or using a “new” Social Security number to create a new credit profile mixing “legitimate and fake data to create synthetic identities,” as The Wall Street Journal reports) to more ornate scams, where the bad guys set up shell companies that report to the three credit reporting agencies on huge portfolios of fictitious consumers (all of them synthetic identities) with unusually perfect credit histories—a sort of pump-and-dump scam.

But even with the more ornate scams that are built on credit fictions, there is an element of truth to them — someone’s Social Security number has been listed, someone’s address and someone else’s name — and that’s where you can get hurt.

If your Social Security number is being used as the lynchpin of a synthetic identity, any fraudulent accounts (or derogatory information associated with them) could ultimately wind up on your credit report and severely damage your credit scores.

In addition to the credit score consequences, the legal repercussions related to identity theft can be severe. Sometimes, victims not only have to combat financial fraud, they also face the risk of being jailed for crimes they didn’t commit, for instance.

The average consumer — heck, even a fairly savvy one — has no meaningful way to prevent this kind of attack on their personal information, and there is a simple reason. They don’t know anything about it, and because of its convoluted nature — not all of the personal information associated with the identity matches the victim — they may not know about it until they are in the soup.

A Growing Problem

According to a Federal Trade Commission report, synthetic identity theft accounted for 80 to 85% of all identity fraud in the U.S. and “is the fastest growing type of ID fraud.”

The primary cause here will be a familiar sounding one — mega data breaches. With more than a billion records containing personally identifiable information compromised to date, there’s a cornucopia of information out there — doubtless some that belongs to you or your family members.

What You Can Do

Practice the Three Ms, which I describe in detail in my book, “Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves”.

Minimize your exposure. Caution is the watchword here. If you get a call or an email asking you to authenticate sensitive information, hang up or hit delete, go online to find the correct contact information for the organization that called, and call them back directly. Bear in mind there is one big trade-off when you use social media and do what most folks do—over-share life events: strangers can glean a great deal about you. Protect your passwords, make them long and strong, properly store documents that can be used to hijack your identity, and seriously consider freezing your credit, which prevents creditors from accessing your credit reports.

Monitor your accounts. Keep track of your credit score, as a sudden drop may indicate identity theft. (You can view two of your credit scores, updated each month, for free on Credit.com.) Check in on major accounts daily. If that’s too much work, sign up for free transaction alerts from financial services institutions and credit card companies. You might also want to consider subscribing to a credit and identity monitoring program. Don’t just do this for yourself, do it for your children as well, since synthetic identity theft scammers often target their Social Security numbers.

Manage the damage. If you are a victim of identity-related fraud, deal with it right away, whether you roll up your sleeves and do it yourself or enroll in a program that does it for you. (In fact, you may already be enrolled in such a program, compliments of your insurance company, financial services institution or employer.) Set up fraud alerts with each of the major credit reporting agencies. Again, if you haven’t done so, consider a credit freeze, which can prevent new accounts from being taken out in your name.

Javelin Strategy & Research estimated that new-account fraud will “soar 44% between 2014 and 2018, rising from $5 billion in annual losses to a projected $8 billion.” The solution to this growing problem for American households is not an easy one.

Synthetic identity theft — like the very sophisticated malware that infects systems and stealthily spreads its tentacles through personal, business and government networks— is extremely hard to detect and often harder to unravel. The answer is to remain alert and remember, if something seems off, go with your gut.

More on Identity Theft:

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4 Expensive Credit Card Add-Ons You Can Avoid

eiffel_selfie

Sure, you might want a picture of your adorable dog on your credit card, or maybe that adorable photo of you and your fiancé on vacation, but is it worth the money?

If you have great credit and are already paying off your credit card balances in full every month, that extra expenditure (nominal, to be sure) can make perfect sense if it makes you happy each time you pull your card out of your wallet.

But what if you’re thinking about personalizing that secured card you just got to improve your credit? Or what about other charges that you may or may not know you’re opting into? Some of these add-ons and upcharges offered by credit card companies might be best to avoid. Here are five credit card add-ons and how you can keep from being charged for them.

1. Express Pay Option

Some credit card issuers offer this service for an extra fee.Essentially, by giving the issuer an extra $10 or so along with your monthly payment, you’re paying to have access to an increased available credit limit more quickly (one business day versus three or four business days after you make a payment).

As with many of these kinds of offers, it’s a revenue generator for credit card issuers, particularly those who service cardholders with subprime credit.

“You see more of that stuff in the subprime world because they don’t have the same sort of revenue capability that some of the other card issuers do,” said Thomas Nietzsche, a credit educator with ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions. “Those lower credit limit cards really have to be creative with how they make money.”

Instead of paying extra to make sure you have access to a larger available balance more quickly, you may want to try paying down as much of your balance each month as you can. Putting that extra $10 toward your balance is generally a far better use of the money than is making sure you can access more of your credit limit a few days sooner.

2. Credit Card Insurance

This option isn’t as heavily pushed by card issuers as it was many years ago, due in part to some legal actions that found credit card insurance coverages to be questionable at best.

Most debt protection plans are expensive and confusing. They cost money in direct upfront payments, and even when they do pay out, they cost extra money in deferred interest payments. Besides, each plan has its own loopholes and exclusions that the issuer can sometimes use to avoid paying any benefit at all. The solution in most cases is to not sign up in the first place.

“There have been cases where the company the creditor was contracting with wasn’t actually providing any services at all,” Nietzsche said.

If you have high credit card debt, or you worry you may soon experience a big drop in income, you may decide that a debt protection plan is right for you. If so, get and read the terms of the insurance yourself. Make sure that it covers a job loss or medical problem you might actually experience.

And if you do it, you’d better be expecting calamity sometime soon. Paying $3,000 for a paltry $10,000 in maximum benefits shows just how quickly the expense of these products can stack up. The sooner the disaster, the bigger the financial payoff for the consumer.

3. Adding an Authorized User

Most credit cards will allow cardholders to add authorized users at no additional charge, but some high-end rewards cards charge a fee for each additional cardholder. The ability to add an authorized cardholder is a nice benefit to have, but it is not without risk. By understanding the advantages and liabilities, cardholders can more wisely consider granting another person access to their line of credit.

4. Receiving Paper Statements

Some issuers charge $1 to send paper statements, and it’s not always clear that you’re being charged for this “extra” until it shows up on your statement. To avoid this upcharge, ask the company directly if they charge for paper statements, or forgo receiving them altogether. And always check your statement for charges like this, as well as fraudulent or erroneous charges.

One of the most important things you can do when it comes to your credit cards is to monitor how your payment history and credit utilization are impacting your credit scores. A poor credit score can be downright expensive — potentially tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime. (We even made a calculator so you can see just how much you’re losing to bad credit.)

You can track how your credit card balances and payment history are impacting your credit by getting your two free credit scores, updated monthly, on Credit.com.

More on Credit Reports & Credit Scores:

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Will Making More Than the Minimum Payment on My Credit Card Impact My Credit Score?

PayingTheMinimumIf you carry a balance on your credit card, you may wonder how your payments affect your credit score. Does paying only the minimum credit card payment negatively impact it? Does paying more positively affect it? The answer usually depends on your particular situation, but the benefits of understanding the relationship between your payments and your credit score are huge.

Even if you are confident that you understand how your credit card payments may impact your credit score, you may not be taking the right steps to maximize the benefits of your payments. Here is what may happen when you pay more than the minimum and how additional payments may impact your credit score.

Benefits to your finances

The most obvious result of paying more than the minimum is that you’re making faster progress at reducing your credit card balance. Any amount paid above the minimum may lower the amount you owe in principal and future interest.

This creates a virtuous cycle where you pay less in interest because you are, overall, making fewer total payments, just as you would pay more in interest if your payments stretched over a longer period of time by paying only the minimum. Of course, this also depends on not making additional purchases with your card, which may add to the balance you are trying to pay down.

Ultimately, this process may help you save money that you can then use for other purposes, such as creating an emergency fund or investing for retirement. You might not realize immediate benefits from paying more than your minimum, but over the long term, you may be able to see many improvements to your finances.

Impacts to your credit score

Your credit utilization ratio refers to the amount of available credit you are using and the amounts owed. It typically accounts for 30 to 35 percent of your credit score. So if you have a $10,000 limit on your credit card but carry a balance of $9,000, your ratio is 90 percent, which is considered high. Paying down that balance and maintaining a lower utilization ratio may show lenders that you might be a more responsible borrower.

If you only use about 30 percent of your credit each month, paying off the entire balance on time shows that you are capable of handling your accounts more responsibly. This may also give you opportunities for lower interest rates on new lines of credit, meaning less interest accrual in the future.

Effects of paying just the minimum

If you pay only the minimum amount due each month, you may be paying more interest than principal, depending on your interest rate. This draws out the length of time over which you are paying back the overall balance, which may result in even more accruing interest. Instead of paying your card off in a few months, sending in just the minimum might draw out your payments for years.

Your budget is likely to benefit from doing the math and staying informed about how making additional payments can save you extra interest as well as lower your credit utilization ratio.

Related Articles:
Why Your Credit Mix Matters
How Your Credit Limit Is Decided—And Why It Matters
Should I or Shouldn’t I: When to Tap Your Emergency Fund

 

Your Identity Portfolio Can Make or Break You

identity portfolio

No matter how good or lucky the investor, no one beats the market 100% of the time—unless, of course, you are Bobby Axelrod. There is, however, an investment portfolio that is somewhat more predictable. It works along similar lines, but it is possible to exercise significantly more control over it than equities. I’m talking about your identity portfolio.

I’ve written elsewhere about your credit portfolio, which can be a wealth-builder or a weapon of individual destruction depending upon how much time and effort you invest in building, nurturing, managing and protecting it.

Most people know that having bad or good credit can mean the difference between buying a bigger, better home, getting a low monthly payment on a new car, and even whether or not you get a job. No doubt that last fact comes as a surprise for many, but it is a real issue — even though a growing number of states limit utilization of credit reports as part of a job interview, many employers will, with permission, review an applicant’s credit history in order to evaluate his or her trustworthiness and employability.

Your identity portfolio is arguably more important than your credit portfolio, because if it takes a hit — and at some point in your life it most likely will — so does your credit for at least as long as it takes to sort things out with whatever agencies and institutions are involved in the particular way you were defrauded.

Ask anyone who has experienced an attack on their identity — and with that their credit-worthiness — when they were, for example, in the middle of making a major purchase like a home or car: Identity-related crimes are a game-changer and the fallout can be pretty dire.

What’s in a Name?

I’ll leave the poetry to Shakespeare, but when it comes to your identity portfolio, your name and the cloud of facts that tie that name specifically to you is pretty much the whole enchilada. All of our material facts and assets are tied to a name — your credit accounts, your phone, your social media, your home, your car, your debt.

With an endless parade of major data wipeouts in our wake, Social Security numbers — the skeleton key to our lives — can be purchased on the information black market by the bushel. It is a bad bet to assume your Social Security number isn’t already “out there.” Indeed, a major reason why more folks haven’t yet become victims of identity-related crimes is because there simply aren’t enough scam artists in the world to make bank on all the information that has been hijacked from tens of thousands of databases — not to mention that which is willingly flung out there daily on social networking sites.

The big difference between your stock portfolio and your identity portfolio, however, is that you really do have some control with your data. While there is no way to stop a scam artist from targeting you, the goal is to own your name, and, as much as possible, to safeguard it, making sure no one else ever does.

You’re Going to Get Got

Unfortunately, that’s much easier said than done. With more than 1 billion records already exposed through mega breaches and daily security lapses to those who view the theft of our identities as their day job, there’s just no telling who has access to the kinds of information that tie your name to your waking reality, and if the wrong person gets a hold of the keys to “you,” you’re in harm’s way.

But there is good news: You can take proactive measures to minimize your exposure.

For starters, there are the Three Ms, which I describe in detail in my book, Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves. The short version of them:

  • Minimize your exposure. Don’t authenticate yourself to anyone unless you are in control of the interaction, don’t over-share on social media, be a good steward of your passwords, safeguard any documents that can be used to hijack your identity, and consider freezing your credit.
  • Monitor your accounts. Check your credit report religiously, keep track of your credit score, review major accounts daily if possible. (You can check two of your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.) If you prefer a more laid back approach, sign up for free transaction alerts from financial services institutions and credit card companies, or purchase a sophisticated credit and identity monitoring program,
  • Manage the damage. Make sure you get on top of any incursion into your identity quickly and/or enroll in a program where professionals help you navigate and resolve identity compromises—oftentimes available for free, or at minimal cost, through insurance companies, financial services institutions and HR departments.

Protect Your Kids’ Identity Portfolios Too

Not everyone can start an investment portfolio for their kids — whether it takes the form of money socked away for a rainy day, stocks and bonds to help defray the cost of college or long-term strategies aimed at accruing the down payment on a house. None of that will be possible, sometimes for years, if your child becomes the victim of identity theft as a minor.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most people don’t think about checking their children’s credit. It should be blank. If it isn’t, you need to resolve the matter expeditiously. The three Ms are a crucial investment in your children’s futures — or rather the first and second ones are: Minimize exposure (don’t post pictures of passports and Social Security cards, geo-tagged pictures, or anything else that could be used to gather enough information for a scam) and monitor accounts (check your child’s credit annually or find out how to create a credit file and suppress it — where permitted by law — until they are old enough to legally apply for credit).

Kill Your Data

Because there are so many ways people unwittingly (phishing) or willingly (social networking) leak information, your job is to make as much of it disappear as possible.

Some examples of places your information can be found: The cache of your computer; your hard drive (even after you erase it), deactivated social media accounts (and of course active ones with loose privacy settings), your browser history. If someone gets into your computer, they can put together a very detailed account of who you are based upon the sites you visit, the purchases you’ve made, the Internet searches you’ve conducted (think about how much about your life is discernable from the things you Google), the amount of time you spend online and the folks with whom you keep in touch.

If you keep your phone’s location tracker on, you’re potentially providing a stalker, a scammer, a burglar or an identity thief with a whole lot of information: where you go, where you live, even who sleeps next to you. If you allow geo-tagging on your photos, there is still more information to be had.

All this data about you serves a business purpose. It helps companies better understand how to sell you products and services. Arguably, it can make your life more convenient. But the trade-off is vulnerability. By helping third parties better understand who you are, you‘re also placing yourself in a position to be hurt if, for example, one of those third parties gets hacked.

Think it won’t happen to you? So did tens of thousands of organizations like Anthem, Neiman Marcus, Community Health Services, the Houston Astros, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the Internal Revenue Service.

No one is beyond the reach of hackers. Your best bet is to assume that you are going to get got, and keep things as tidy as possible. Don’t make it easy to turn yourself into an identity crime statistic. Invest in your identity profile with vigilance and common sense, and it will go a long way towards getting you where you want to go, without any unnecessary impediments. Leave it to fate, and…

More on Identity Theft:

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Identity Theft Complaints Are Up 47% in Just One Year

credit report errors

Reports of identity theft shot up in 2015, largely driven by an increase in tax- and wage-related fraud, according to the Federal Trade Commission. People made 490,220 identity theft complaints to the FTC in 2015, up from 332,647 (a 47% increase) in 2014 and 290,102 in 2013.

From 2014 to 2015, there were 51% more complaints related to tax and wage identity theft, which isn’t all that surprising. All thieves need is a Social Security number — say, one that got stolen in one of the many data breaches from recent years — to file a fraudulent tax return. Through November 2015, the IRS reports it has stopped 1.4 million identity theft returns (preventing about $8 billion in fraudulent refunds), but an audit of the IRS found that it lost $5.8 billion to such fraud in 2013.

There’s likely a gap between the incidents reported to the FTC and the actual number of identity-theft occurrences in the U.S., and it’s unclear if the remarkable rise in reports is a result of more identity theft, more people reporting or a combination of both.

Regardless, the figures send a clear message: Identity theft is a common and growing problem. What’s worse: It’s really difficult — some say impossible — to prevent. There are steps you can take to minimize your risk of becoming an identity theft victim, like filing your taxes as early as possible and minimizing the amount of information you share with others. Freezing your credit report can also keep fraudsters from opening up fake accounts in your name, an action that can make a mess of your credit.

When prevention isn’t an option, rapid detection can make all the difference in containing the damage. Sudden changes in your credit scores can be a sign of identity theft (you can see two free credit scores every 30 days on Credit.com), and you’ll want to regularly review your free annual credit reports for errors. Identity theft has, unfortunately, become a common occurrence, so one the best things you can do to protect yourself is know how to respond if it happens to you. Identity theft victims can file reports with the local authorities, notify their creditors and the credit bureaus and filing a complaint with the FTC, among other things. They’ll also likely need to dispute any errors they find on their credit reports. You can DIY your credit dispute process, which can be done online or via the mail, or you can hire someone like a credit repair company to do it for you.

More on Identity Theft:

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Credit Monitoring: Is It Worth It?

Credit Monitoring- Is It Worth It

Are you considering a fee-based credit monitoring service?

Makes perfect sense, considering the prevalence of identity theft in the U.S. alone. In 2014, 17.6 million U.S. residents experienced one or more incidents of identity theft, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That’s 7 percent of the population age 16 and over! We’ve even witnessed several big-box retailers fall victim to security breaches.

But before moving forward, you have to consider if the monthly cost outweighs the benefits, and if there are better cost-efficient alternatives.

What Is Credit Monitoring?

It is a service that is used to monitor your credit profile around the clock and provide you with a credit score each month.

Pros

1. Instant Alerts

 Subscribers are immediately notified of any credit activity impacting their credit profile.  In the event you are victimized by an identity thief, knowing this information sooner than later could save you tons of time, money and headaches.

 2. Credit Score Simulator

This tool enables you to gauge how a particular action will impact your credit score over time. You can estimate the impact the on your FICO score if any of the following occur:

  • Receive a denial for a credit card of loan
  • Open a new credit card or loan
  • Transfer balances to a new credit card
  • Reduce outstanding balances by a certain amount
  • Make Timely payments over a specified period of time
  • Receive Credit line increase
  • Have an account sent to collections

The impact of tax liens, wage garnishments and foreclosure can also be determined using this tool.

 3. Educational Resource

Most credit monitoring platforms include a credit overview explaining the five components of a FICO score and how you’re performing in each area. Not only is this great way to determine which actions are needed to boost your score, but it is also a great way to educate yourself on how credit works in a nutshell.

Cons

1. Reactive

Although credit monitoring enables you to stay on top of what’s occurring in your credit profile, it’s reactive in nature. Simply put: the damage is already done once you’re notified. By contrast, a security freeze is proactive and restricts access to your credit profile without express permission. You can learn more about security freezes here.

2. Inconsistencies in FICO Scores

The FICO score provided by your credit monitoring service isn’t necessarily the one lenders will use. In fact, each type of lender has their own unique formula as they are evaluating your creditworthiness using different factors. For example, an auto loan company or mortgage lender will not analyze your credit profile in the same way that a financial institution making a personal loan would.

This could be very problematic when applying for a loan because you may be under the impression that you qualify for a more competitive product with a lower interest rate than you actually do. And unfortunately, lenders will not consider the score received through the credit monitoring service provider.

The Verdict

Why pay for something you can get for free or do on your own? My advice: monitor account activity and review statements received from lenders and financial institutions for unusual activity.

Access Your Free Credit Report

You can retrieve a free copy of your credit report annually from the three credit bureaus via AnnualCreditReport.com. I recommend accessing one report from each bureau every four months to maximize the benefit.

Free Credit Monitoring Services

Upon discovering other free credit monitoring services offered online, I test drove them for a few months and decided to drop my paid subscription. Reasoning: their services were actually a step above what I was paying for and they went the extra mile to offer product recommendations best suited for my financial situation. ReadyForZero also recently rolled out a new fee-free credit monitoring service that is definitely worth a test drive.

Other Free Options

Select financial institutions and credit card providers offer free tools to help you stay on top of your credit. Inquire directly to learn more about credit resources that may be available to you.

A Final Thought

If you are set on purchasing some form of credit monitoring, confirm it is from a reputable provider that displays a score provided by one of the three credit bureaus. Lastly, if subscribing gives you a peace of mind and outweighs the monthly cost of having to deal with a tattered credit profile after the fact, go for it.

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