Credit monitoring is the ultimate ‘ounce of prevention’ for your financial health and identity safety.
During the past five years, news of data breaches at large retailers and banks has become all-too commonplace. I’ve received three notices myself. After an initial bout of anxiety, I check my credit card and savings accounts for any unauthorized activity, and, finding none, I breathe a sigh of relief and go on with my life. The problem with that – and with the retailer offering me a year of “free credit monitoring” – is that when credit or identity information is stolen from large corporations, it is usually sold and held for at least a year before being used to ruin your good name and credit. So, it is essential to monitor your credit regularly to reduce your risk of financial loss and potential identity theft. How do you do that? Read on.
Get your free credit reports
The number one defense against credit fraud is to check your annual credit reports. Congress passed the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to make it easy to monitor your credit, for free. You are entitled to one free credit report from each of the three major credit monitoring companies – Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion – once every 12 months. To get your free credit reports, go to annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228. This is the only website authorized to offer the free reports mandated by law. Beware of other sites that may say they offer free reports, but later charge your credit card for ongoing monitoring. You can order all three reports at the same time, but it’s better to stagger your requests throughout the year – for example, ask for one from Experian in January, one from Equifax in April and one from TransUnion in September.
Check the report for any unusual activity. If it shows an inquiry from a business you don’t know, or any errors regarding your payments, you should quickly and aggressively fix those errors. Your credit report is seen by creditors, insurers, employers and any business that needs it to evaluate your credit risk such as for paying rent or getting a loan. Be sure you check the report carefully.
Use your bank’s free alert services
Annual credit reports are great, but how can you find out if someone is using your identity or credit unscrupulously in between reports? Daily or weekly monitoring of your accounts is essential. Most banks and credit unions offer a free alert system for transactions above a certain amount or for fraud of any kind. Check with your bank or credit union, and sign up for daily or real-time alerts to be sent to your phone or email.
Track your spending all in one place
In addition to your bank’s alerts, you can use a third-party mobile app or your computer to track all your spending in one place. That means checking bank and credit card transactions, not just account balances, in real-time. One of the easiest ways to do that is to use an app like Mint (free), BillGuard (now ProsperDaily, $0 – $9.99/mo), or You Need a Budget (free for 34 days, then $50/yr). These apps allow you to connect to and monitor your accounts, track spending, and check credit. AdvisoryHQ ranked BillGuard as “the most powerful financial protection and monitoring app” of 2016. You can check out their review here.
You might also check with your credit card company or retailer to see if they offer any kind of free credit monitoring for your accounts. AAA members get free credit monitoring as a perk to their membership. Beware of credit monitoring scams and phishing scams where you get an email or text message saying your accounts have been locked. Never click on links sent by email or text. Always call your credit card company directly to check on alerts or unusual situations.
No one wants to deal with identity theft or fixing bad credit. Staying on top of your financial activity can help you avoid being a victim. Get your annual credit reports, set up account alerts, and monitor your daily spending with a good mobile app, and you will be able to rest easier knowing you are doing all you can to protect your finances and reputation.