Protecting Your Credit During the Summer Travel Season

The Association of Credit Counseling Professionals – ACCPros – offers tips on maintaining your credit rating and protecting your identity from thieves during the summer travel season.

Falmouth, ME (PRWEB) June 02, 2014

During the summer it’s nice to relax and unwind, but don’t be too lax about maintaining your credit rating and protecting your identity from thieves.

According to AAA, more than 36 million Americans hit the road during the Memorial Day holiday weekend alone, kicking off the unofficial start to the summer travel season.

Millions more are expected to go on vacation for the rest of the summer.

“If you’re not careful, while you’re out having fun on vacation, poor planning and failing to protect yourself from identity theft can wreak havoc on your credit,” says Judy Sorensen, President of the Association of Credit Counseling Professionals (ACCPros).

ACCPros would like to remind travelers not only to maintain their credit rating while on vacation but also to guard against identity theft.

Here are a few tips:

1 – Set a budget

A great way to protect and maintain your overall credit rating is to create and stick to a proper budget.

Before you go away on vacation, create a realistic budget. Will you be driving or flying to your destination? Will you be staying with friends and/or family or will you stay in hotels? Will you eat out every single night and if so, how much will you spend? How much will you allocate to spending on theme park tickets, museums, tours, sightseeing and other entertainment?

You also need to plan for those little things that will add-up to potentially budget busting expenses. It is hard to account for miscellaneous costs like parking, tips, snacks, gas and incidentals.

Remember that once the vacation is over, it’s back to reality and you will have your routine day-to-day bills to contend with.

2- Watch your credit usage

Planning to use a credit card to pay for your vacation? If so, what credit card will you use and how much is your current balance on that card? The last thing you want to do is max out a credit card to pay for your vacation. In determining your credit score the credit bureaus take into consideration the amount of unused credit you have on your credit cards. A maxed out credit card means you have less available credit and can lower your credit score significantly.

This is referred to as credit card utilization – the percentage of credit you’ve charged versus your total credit line. It bears repeating how important a factor this is in determining your credit score. Ideally, your target should be to use no more than 10% of your available credit on any given credit card and to keep your overall credit utilization below 30%.

3 – Avoid missing payments

Make sure that your bills get paid while you are away. You don’t want to find yourself running around some foreign town trying to find an Internet café so that you can try to login to your credit card account to make a payment.

What if a purchase is declined because you are past due on your account and that is the card you were relying on to pay for your vacation? What if you return from an extended vacation and discover a shut off notice from your gas, electric or water utility?

These vacation downers can be avoided by simply planning ahead and setting up automatic payments through your bank, credit card company or utility.

4 -Secure your mail and packages

You probably already know that you can place your mail on hold with the U.S. Postal Service while you are away. Simply go to holdmail.usps.com to initiate hold mail for up to 30 days in advance of your trip. Companies like FedEx and UPS offer hold for pick-up services, allowing consumers to have their packages delivered to the carriers’ pick-up location.

The reason you should have your mail held is so that identity thieves don’t drive up and steal mail from your mailbox and gain access to sensitive information such as credit card statements, checks, credit offers and the like.

5 – Suspend subscriptions

Nothing screams “we’re away on vacation” louder than a pile of uncollected newspapers and flyers sitting in your driveway. Be sure to suspend your newspaper subscriptions or ask a trusted friend or neighbor to collect these for you while you are away. Again, you don’t want crooks to realize that you’re not home.

6 – Use cyber security alerts

It is a good idea to set-up alerts on all of your credit cards and bank accounts. Most credit card issuers will send you a text or email alert every time your credit card is used.

Additionally, most banks will allow you to have an alert sent every time there is activity in your bank account such as when a payment sent, a deposit is made, or a debit card transaction goes through. Set these alerts up and monitor your email or texts while you are on vacation to avoid potential fraud. Make sure you know how to reach your bank via phone or email when you are travelling out of state or out of the country.

7- Contact your credit card issuer(s)

You may want to let your credit card issuer(s) know you will be traveling. Credit card issuers are always watching for signs of fraudulent use. Letting them know you will be out of town and will be using your card will ensure there are no hitches when you need your card.

8 – Practice Internet safety

While traveling think twice about using Internet cafes and other Internet Service Providers (ISP) to access your bank or credit card accounts online. Remember, an Internet Service Provide has the ability to monitor everything that you do online. The ISP may be a legitimate business that does everything in their power to ensure that your privacy is protected. On the other hand, the ISP may have employed a number of rogue workers, would be hackers and others that would gladly find a way to tap into your accounts and make you a victim of identity theft.

About ACCPros

The Association of Credit Counseling Professionals, ACCPros, is the credit counseling industry’s newest and fastest growing trade association. ACCPros distinguishes itself from other associations by placing an emphasis on ethics and compliance and focusing on best practices, quality service, education, training, and professional ethics. ACCPros member agencies can be a great resource for consumers seeking help managing their debt. Call the toll-free ACCPros Locator Line at 800-635-0553 to speak with a certified credit counselor at an agency licensed/registered in your state

Did you know…

…there are four risky places to swipe your debit card?

  1. Outdoor ATMs. A great place for skimming to occur. Skimming is the practice of capturing a bank customer’s card information by running it through a machine that reads the card’s magnetic strip.  To avoid the risk of a skimming device, use an ATM inside a bank, retail outlet or other high-trafficked, well lit place.
  2. Gas stations. Another great place for a skimming device as the pumps have minimal supervision. All a thief needs is a lap top and antenna to steal your debit card information and pin number.  Avoid swiping your debit card at the pump. Use cash or a credit card next time you fill up.
  1. The Web. Debit cards are a convenient way to buy products online. The consumer could have malware on their computers o it could be at their endpoint that the data gets compromised. There’s always the possibility of somebody is eavesdropping on their communication via the wireless network. Use a credit card for online purchases so that you have the protection of your creditor against fraud.
  1. Restaurants. Any place where your debit card is out of sight, it can increase the chances of fraud. The same threat is apparent when ordering for delivery and using your debit card to pay for the food over the telephone.  Avoid this and take the extra safety step to get cash or use a protected method of payment such as a credit card.

Remember thieves are skilled and know all the tricks. They may only use your debit card for small transactions that may go unrecognizable for a while. Review your banking transactions daily to avoid becoming a victim.

 

Return to Thrifty Spending Issue 106

Beware of Tax Identity Theft

What is tax identity theft?

It’s a fast-growing crime that costs taxpayers billions of dollars a year, and shows no signs of abating. Someone uses a taxpayer’s personal information to commit fraud on tax returns to claim refunds or for other crimes, including:

  • Filing a fraudulent tax return using another person’s Social Security number
  • Claiming someone else’s children as dependents
  • Claiming a tax refund using a deceased taxpayer’s information
  • Earning wages under another person’s Social Security number

How does it work?

Crooks look for discarded tax returns, bank records, credit card receipts, Medicare cards and more, often relying on email or telephone phishing, dumpster diving or stealing from your mailbox. They use that info to file for a tax refund before you do. When you file your return later, IRS records will show the first filing and refund, and you’ll get a notice or letter from the IRS.

What can you to do protect yourself?

Reduce tax time stress. File as early in the season as possible, and mail tax returns directly from the post office. If filing electronically, use a secure network and encrypt.

Stay safe online. Do not respond to emails that appear to be from the IRS, and never click on links! The IRS does not send unsolicited, tax account related emails and never asks for personal and financial information.

Protect your personal information. Never store important account numbers or data in purses or wallets, or on smart phones. Use a shredder for paper documents, and install a locking mailbox.

Monitor your accounts and review financial statements regularly. Sign up for your free annual credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com

Consider a signing up for credit identity protection service like SafeID Lock which is offered with a substantial discount through Debt Management Credit Counseling. Click on the following link http://www.dmcccorp.org/safeidlock/

Think you’re a victim of tax ID theft?

Take these four steps right away:

  • File a report with the local police.
  • Contact your bank and credit card companies. Inform credit bureaus and consider freezing your accounts (a credit freeze restricts access to credit reports, making it unlikely that thieves can open new accounts in your name).
  • Contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 800-908-4490 and complete Form 14039.
  • Get an IP (Identity Protection) PIN from the IRS so they can verify your identity as they work with you on the theft going forward.

 

DMCC is a 501 (c)3 nonprofit organization committed to educating consumers on financial issues and providing personal assistance to consumers who have become overextended with debt.  Education is provided free of charge to consumers, as well as personal counseling to identify the best options for the repayment of their debt. To speak to a certified credit counselor, call toll-free 866-618-3328 or email contact@dmcconline.org. DMCC is located at 3310 N. Federal Highway, Lighthouse Point, FL 33064.

 

Medical Identity Theft

Could identity thieves be using your personal and health insurance information to get medical treatment, prescription drugs or surgery? Could dishonest people working in a medical setting be using your information to submit false bills to insurance companies? Medical identity theft is a twist on traditional identity theft, which happens when someone steals your personal information. Like traditional identity theft, medical ID theft can affect your finances; but it also can take a toll on your health.

The Ill Effects of Medical Identity Theft

How would you know if your personal, health, or health insurance information has been compromised? According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, you may be a victim of medical identity theft if:

  • you get a bill for medical services you didn’t receive;
  • a debt collector contacts you about medical debt you don’t owe;
  • you order a copy of your credit report and see medical collection notices you don’t recognize;
  • you try to make a legitimate insurance claim and your health plan says you’ve reached your limit on benefits; or
  • you are denied insurance because your medical records show a condition you don’t have.

Medical identity theft may change your medical and health insurance records: Every time a thief uses your identity to get care, a record is created with the imposter’s medical information that could be mistaken for your medical information – say, a different blood type, an inaccurate history of drug or alcohol abuse, test results that aren’t yours, or a diagnosis of an illness, allergy or condition you don’t have. Any of these could lead to improper treatment, which in turn, could lead to injury, illness or worse.

An Ounce of Prevention

While there’s no fool-proof way to avoid medical identity theft, the FTC says you can take a few steps to minimize your risk.

  • Verify a source before sharing information. Don’t give out personal or medical information on the phone or through the mail unless you’ve initiated the contact and you’re sure you know who you’re dealing with. Be wary of offers of “free” health services or products from providers who require you to give them your health plan ID number. Medical identity thieves may pose as employees of insurance companies, doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, and even government agencies to get people to reveal their personal information. Then, they use it to commit fraud, like submitting false claims for Medicare reimbursement.
  • Safeguard your medical and health insurance information. If you keep copies of your medical or health insurance records, make sure they’re secure, whether they’re on paper in a desk drawer or electronic in a file online. Be on guard when you use the Internet, especially to access accounts or records related to your medical care or insurance. If you are asked to share sensitive personal information like your Social Security number, insurance account information or any details of your health or medical conditions on the Internet, ask why it’s needed, how it will be kept safe, and whether it will be shared. Look for website privacy policies and read them: They should specify how site operators maintain the accuracy of the personal information they collect, as well as how they secure it, who has access to it, how they will use the information you provide, and whether they will share it with third parties. If you decide to share your information online, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL that begins “https:” (the “s” is for secure). Remember that email is not secure.
  • Treat your trash carefully. To thwart a medical identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal and medical information, shred your health insurance forms and prescription and physician statements. It’s also a good idea to destroy the labels on your prescription bottles and packages before you throw them out.

Detecting Medical Identity Theft

Paying close attention to your medical, insurance and financial records can help you spot discrepancies and possible fraud.

  • Read the Explanation of Benefits (EOB) statement that your health plan sends you after treatment. Make sure the claims paid match the care you received. Look for the name of the provider, the date of service, and the service provided. If there’s a discrepancy, contact your health plan to report the problem.
  • Order a copy of your credit reports, and review them carefully. Credit reports are full of information about you, including what accounts you have and whether you pay your bills in a timely way. The law requires each of three major nationwide credit reporting companies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – to give you a free copy of your credit report each year if you ask for it. Visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com or call 1-877-322-8228 to order your free credit reports each year, or complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. You can download the form at www.ftc.gov/freereports.Once you have your reports, look for inquiries from companies you didn’t contact, accounts you didn’t open, and debts on your accounts that you can’t explain. Check that your Social Security number, your address(es), name or initials, and your employers are listed correctly. If you find inaccurate or fraudulent information, get it fixed or removed. Visit www.ftc.gov/idtheft to learn how.
  • Ask for a copy of your medical records. If you believe you’ve already been a victim of medical identity theft, review your medical and health insurance records regularly. The thief may have used your name to see a doctor, get prescription drugs with your health ID number, file claims with your insurance provider, or done other things that leave a trail in your medical records. Try to review your health records for inaccuracies before you seek additional medical care. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule gives you the right to copies of your records that are maintained by health plans and medical providers covered by that law. Health care providers and health plans generally are required to give you your files within 30 days after you ask for them. Unlike credit reports, there is no central source for your medical records. You need to contact each provider you do business with – including doctors, clinics, hospitals, pharmacies, laboratories and health plans – that is relevant to your experience. For example, if a thief got a prescription in your name, you may want the record from the pharmacy that filled the prescription and the health care provider who wrote the prescription. Or if you’ve been using the same hospital for 20 years and you think that the identity theft is recent, you may want to limit your request to records of the last few years or months.It’s likely that you have to complete a form and pay a fee to get a copy of your records. Keep track of your communications with your health plan and providers, including copies of postal and email correspondence, and a log of your phone calls, conversations and activities. Be patient: Health plans and providers, particularly small ones, may not have handled a claim of medical identity theft before, and may not be sure how to respond.In most instances, a provider who denies you access to your records must give you the reason in writing. Some providers may refuse to give you copies of your medical or billing records for fear that they’re violating the identity thief’s HIPAA privacy rights. These providers are mistaken: You have the right to know what’s in your file. If your request is denied, you have the right to appeal. Contact the person identified in the provider’s Notice of Privacy Practices or the patient representative or ombudsman, explain the situation and request your file. If a provider still refuses to give you access to your records within 30 days of your written request, file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, at www.hhs.gov/ocr.

You also should get a copy of the accounting of disclosures for your medical record from your health plan and providers. It will help you follow the trail of your information and identify who has incorrect information about you. The law allows you to order one free copy of the accounting from each of your providers every 12 months. The accounting is a record of:

  • the date of the disclosure;
  • the name of the person or entity who received the information;
  • a brief description of the information disclosed;
  • a brief statement of the purpose of the disclosure or a copy of the request for it.

Certain disclosures that occur often or as a matter of routine – like each time a doctor’s office sends treatment information to another health care provider, or sends payment information to an insurer for reimbursement – may not be included in the accounting.

For more information about your rights under HIPAA, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights at www.hhs.gov/ocr, or the World Privacy Forum at www.worldprivacyforum.org/FAQ_medicalrecordprivacy.html.

Bouncing Back from Medical Identity Theft

If you are a victim of medical identity theft, here are several steps to take immediately. Keep detailed records of your conversations and copies of your correspondence.

  1. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission online at https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov or by phone at 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338); TTY: 1-866-653-4261.
  2. File a report with your local police, and send copies of the report to your health plan’s fraud department, your health care provider(s), and the three nationwide credit reporting companies. Information on how to file a police report is at www.ftc.gov/idtheft/consumers/defend.html.
  3. Exercise your right under HIPAA to correct errors in your medical and billing records. Write to your health plan or provider detailing the information that seems inaccurate. Include copies (keep the originals) of any document that supports your position. In addition to providing your complete name and address, your letter should identify each item in your record that you dispute, state the facts and your reasons for disputing the information, and request that each error be corrected or deleted. You may want to enclose a copy of your medical record with the items in question circled. Send your letter by certified mail, and ask for a “return receipt,” so you can document what the plan or provider received. Keep copies of your dispute letter and enclosures.

Generally, your health plan or medical provider must respond: The creator of the information is obligated to amend the inaccurate or incomplete information. It also should notify other parties, like labs or other health care providers, that may have received incorrect information. If an investigation doesn’t resolve your dispute with your plan or provider, you can ask that a statement of the dispute be included in your record.

Other Steps to Consider

A fraud alert can help prevent an identity thief from opening additional accounts in your name. Contact the toll-free fraud number of any one of the three nationwide credit reporting companies to place a fraud alert on your credit report. Contact only one of the three companies to place an alert. The one you call is required to contact the others that, in turn, place an alert on their versions of your report, too.

  • TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790
  • Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; www.equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
  • Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); www.experian.com; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013

A security freeze, also known as a credit freeze, is a warning sign to businesses or others who may use your credit file. It locks down your credit file and blocks access by potential creditors. In short, it makes it less likely that an identity thief can open new accounts. Most states have laws that allow consumers to place a credit freeze with credit reporting companies. In many of these states, any consumer can freeze their credit file; in others, only identity theft victims can freeze their files.

Placing a credit freeze does not affect your credit score, keep you from getting your free annual credit report, or keep you from buying your credit report or score. It doesn’t prevent you from opening a new account, applying for a job, renting an apartment, or buying insurance, either. In these situations, the business usually needs to review your credit report. You can ask the credit reporting company to lift your credit freeze temporarily, or remove it altogether.

There are two key differences between security freezes and fraud alerts:

  • The credit reporting companies are not required to share a request for a security freeze as they are with a fraud alert. If you want to freeze all your credit files completely, you have to contact each company with your request.
  • The credit reporting companies may charge you a fee to place a freeze or to lift it. The fees and lead times to freeze or “thaw” your credit file vary among states, so it’s wise to check with your state authorities or with a credit reporting company in advance if possible. In many states, security freezes are free for identity theft victims; in others, consumers must pay a fee – typically $10. It’s also important to know that each credit reporting company charges a fee for this. More information is at www.ftc.gov/idtheft.

If you have a valid police or other investigative report about the theft, you usually can place or lift a freeze for free.

If you believe you are a victim of medical identity theft and are concerned that your identity could be compromised further – say, by credit accounts being opened in your name – you may want to consider a freeze as an additional layer of protection.

For More Information

For information about getting and correcting your medical records:

World Privacy Forum
2033 San Elijo Avenue, #402
Cardiff by the Sea, CA 92007
www.worldprivacyforum.org
760-436-2489

Center on Medical Record Rights and Privacy
Health Policy Institute
Georgetown University
Box 57144
Washington DC 20057-1485
http://ihcrp.georgetown.edu/privacy/records.html
202-687-0880

If you believe that a health plan or provider violated your rights under HIPAA, you may want to file a complaint with:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Office for Civil Rights
200 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20201
www.hhs.gov/ocr

The FTC works to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them. To file a complaint or get free information on consumer issues, visit ftc.gov or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. Watch a new video, How to File a Complaint, at ftc.gov/video to learn more. The FTC enters consumer complaints into the Consumer Sentinel Network, a secure online database and investigative tool used by hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

DMCC is a 501 (c)3 nonprofit organization committed to educating consumers on financial issues and providing personal assistance to consumers who have become overextended with debt.  Education is provided free of charge to consumers, as well as personal counseling to identify the best options for the repayment of their debt. To speak to a certified credit counselor, call toll-free 866-618-3328 or email contact@dmcconline.org. DMCC is located at 3310 N. Federal Highway, Lighthouse Point, FL 33064.

Information provided by www.ftc.gov.

Avoiding Identity Theft

According to the Federal Trade Commission, over half a million Americans will have their identities stolen each year.  The most common types of identity theft are:

• Using or opening a credit card account fraudulently

• Opening cell phone or utility accounts fraudulently

• Passing bad checks or opening a new bank account

• Getting loans in another person’s name

Victims spend on average 175 hours and $800.00 to clear their names.

Tips on How to Avoid Identity Theft

• Completely review your credit card and bank account statements and make sure you are receiving them regularly. If anyone is trying to steal your identity, they need to get possession of your documents. Thieves do this by calling your bank and changing the address on your account(s). If bank or credit card documents are late, immediately call your creditors to confirm your information has been sent to your home address and ask for copies. Purchase an inexpensive paper shredder and shred these copies when you are finished with them.

• Do not give out personal information to anyone you do not know. Professional thieves can pose as bankers or government agents in order to steal your information.• Do not leave any important documents in your mailbox. Thieves will take outgoing payments and correspondence from your mailbox and collect the information for their use. Deposit your letters directly into an official mailbox.

• Shred any credit card offers or pre-approved loan offers. Thieves will go through your trash to find these documents and activate these accounts.

• Your social security number is the key to your identity. Do not carry it around in your handbag or wallet. Keep a minimal number of ID cards and credit cards in your possession. Keep them at home in a safe place and bring them with you when you need them.  The following toll-free number, 1-888-567-8688 or 1-888-5OPTOUT, is a phone service run by the nation’s credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Consumers may call this number and ask to be removed from mailing lists for unsolicited credit cards or so-called pre-approved loan offers.

Marketing Databases

If you would like to remove your name from mail and telephone marketing databases, write a letter to both Direct Marketing Association locations below and request your name be removed from these lists.

Direct Marketing Association

Mail Preference Service

P.O. Box 9008

Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008

Telephone Preference Service

P.O. Box 9014

Farmingdale, NY 11735-9014

Safeguard Your Computer

These days thieves do not even have to come in contact with you to steal your identity. They can do it by hacking into your computer. If you are connected to the Internet, you need the protection of a firewall and a secure browser. Be careful not to open spam e-mails that may contain “worms” that let cyber thieves monitor your Internet transactions. When you upgrade your computer, do not dispose of the old one without using a “wipe” utility program to erase the entire hard drive. Just deleting files does not make them unrecoverable to a clever techno thief.

What to Do if You are a Victim

If you think your identity is being used, you must immediately contact all of the three major credit bureaus and the Federal Trade Commission. These bureaus have fraud centers that will request you follow certain procedures and forward copies of certain documents to them. Follow the procedures they have in place and make sure you ask them to place a “fraud alert” on your file. Here is the contact information for each major credit bureau:

Equifax: To order your credit report call: 1-800-685-1111 or write: P.O. Box 740241, Alanta, GA 30374-0241. To report fraud call: 1-800-525-6285 and write to the same address.

Experian: To order your report call: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742) or write: P.O. Box 2104, Allen, TX 75013 To report fraud call same number and write: P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013

TransUnion: To order your report call: 1-800-916-8800 or write: P.O. Box 1000, Chester, PA 19022. To report fraud call: 1-800-680-7289 and write: Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790

Federal Trade Commission: Identity Theft Hotline: toll free 1-877-IDTHEFT or write: Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580.

Cases of stolen identity happen to real people every day. Protect your identity and your good name.

DMCC is a 501 (c)3 nonprofit organization committed to educating consumers on financial issues and providing personal assistance to consumers who have become overextended with debt.  Education is provided free of charge to consumers, as well as personal counseling to identify the best options for the repayment of their debt. To speak to a certified credit counselor, call toll-free 866-618-3328 or email contact@dmcconline.org. DMCC is located at 3310 N. Federal Highway, Lighthouse Point, FL 33064.