Maya is a Santa Monica resident who was ready to buy a new car. She saved money for a down payment, had a good job, and could easily afford the monthly payment. However, when Maya applied for a loan at a dealership, she was turned down. The dealer told her that the rejection was based on several delinquencies on her credit report. Maya was puzzled – she has one credit card and a student loan that she pays on time, and no other debt. However, when Maya ran her own credit report, she was shocked to find out that someone had fraudulently opened several accounts in her name. Now, instead of driving her new car, Maya is spending many hours reporting the fraud and cleaning up her credit.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of identity theft.  Federal law passed in response to the Equifax data breach now requires that all three credit reporting agencies freeze and unfreeze credit inquiries, for free, for consumers in all 50 states. A credit freeze means that potential lenders cannot view your credit history, which means no one – including you – can borrow money in your name. You can put a freeze on your credit to prevent fraud, but be sure to unfreeze it if you’re planning to apply for any kind of loan. The law also allows parents to freeze the credit of children younger than 16, and extends free fraud alerts from 90 days to one year. You can find more information at www.consumer.ftc.gov/.

Monitoring your credit report is another way to prevent identity theft. You’re entitled to one free report each year from each of the major credit-reporting bureaus. Savvy consumers often request one report from each agency every four months or so, to maximize their free reports. You can access this service at www.annualcreditreport.com. Other websites charge for this service, but think twice about paying for your credit report when the service is available for free.

Other common-sense tips can help you protect your credit history:

  • Ask questions when asked for your Social Security number or other sensitive data. If you can avoid providing the information, don’t give it out.
  • Use caution when you receive unsolicited calls or emails, and never provide financial or personal information to callers, or click on unfamiliar links.
  • If a call or email appears to be from a business you know, such as your bank, don’t respond. Call back or email using contact information you already have, to verify that the contact is legitimate. Scammers routinely use “spoofing” software and other tricks that make it seem like they’re contacting you from an institution you trust.

You can also opt out of pre-screened credit offers, another god step to lower the chance of identity theft. (Call 888-567-8688 or go to optoutprescreen.com.) It’s also important to shred paperwork that contains identifying information, and take care when disposing of computers, phones, and other electronic devices that contain personal information.

If you’re a Santa Monica resident or have questions about a company doing business here, you can contact the City Attorney’s Consumer Protection Division at 310-458-8336, or smconsumer.org.

Submitted by Andrea Cavanaugh

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