Correcting the Easy Stuff is Almost Done

According to my student loan company, my name has been updated on my student loan account. They never notified me that they received my request update my account, so I logged into my account online, and there it was – my updated information. Hooray for small miracles. I figure I’ll give TransUnion a month, and then I’ll request the change to my name once again.

I called Experian to talk about my addresses. Each address on my report was assigned a code number. I had to deal with a computer, but I was able to dispute the addresses over the phone by punching in the code number assigned to the address. About 10 addresses were removed from my report, and Experian mailed me an updated report. There were about four addresses that it would not allow me to dispute with the automated phone system, so I will have to call back during regular business hours to speak to a person to see what’s going on with those. One of them is really odd – it’s not even a complete address – it’s just a city and state. A city that I’ve never lived in. I have no idea what’s going on there.

I know that there have been some attempts at fraud using my name and/or social security number. At a past job, the CEO hired a really sketchy guy to handle accounting and human resources. This man had access to our personal information and our bank account information on account of us having direct deposit. He pulled a lot of sketchy moves and finally disappeared after stealing a few thousand dollars out of petty cash and other accounts. I left that job before that whole situation was resolved, so I have no idea if he was ever found or if the case made it to court. I placed a fraud alert with the credit reporting agencies and switched my bank account, and so far, nothing’s happened that could be traced back to this man.

However, this past November, I was reviewing my checking account online when I noticed a transaction for $500 that I didn’t recognize. I used my bank’s online customer service and sent them a message inquiring about the nature of that withdrawal. I never did receive a response to that inquiry. The next day, I logged into my account and there was *another* transaction for $500 along with several overdraft fees. Thus began an absolute circus of calls to the bank, waiting interminably on hold to speak to the one and only department at the bank that would discuss the case with me (minimum hold time 35-40 minutes before a person came on the line who was anything but helpful), filing police reports, and then being told by my bank that it would take them 4-6 months to investigate. The bank gave me information in little bits and pieces. The two transactions were actually ATM withdrawals – all the scarier, because someone had not only a clone of my debit card, but my PIN as well. My own research revealed that there were two likely culprits: using my debit card at the pay-at-the-pump at the gas station or using my debit card to pay at a restaurant, where the waiter/waitress takes you card and wanders off where you cannot see him/her to process the payment.

The take-away there is do not use your debit card to pay at the pump or to pay at a restaurant. It’s extremely difficult to get fraudulent charges on debit cards reversed, but credit cards are much easier to deal with. Pay inside at the gas station, or if you must, pay with your credit card. Pay cash at restaurants, or use a regular credit card instead of a debit card.

There was also a weird case a few years ago where someone must have gotten hold of just enough of my personal information to think they had a chance of getting some credit or something. Ex-employers and assorted family members started getting weird phone calls from women claiming to be “Mrs. Washington”, “Mrs. Jefferson”, and “Mrs. Monroe” saying they had to speak to me. Did the person on the phone know my address? Phone number? Social Security Number? “Mrs. Washington” even had the nerve to tell one family member that she needed the family member’s social security number to verify in her records that the phone call had happened. It was very strange, but everyone who got a phone call was smart about it and didn’t give out any of my information, nor any of their own either, and as far as I can tell, nothing came of it.

To make a long story short, some of these strange addresses on my report may have come from some of this crazy and fraudulent activity, as a previous commenter pointed out. All the more reason to keep tabs on your accounts and your credit report. The sooner you realize there’s a problem, the sooner you can take steps to get it fixed.

Progress on correcting the easy stuff!

I am the proud owner of three credit reports – one from each Credit Reporting Agency, and a few nice results.

Equifax – deleted all of my old addresses except, of course, my current address. They also corrected my name.

TransUnion – still refuses to update my name. I finally identified a student loan that’s still under my old name. I can only assume that this is the only tradeline reporting my old name. Does it make any sense to you with all other tradelines reporting my name correctly and me providing multiple documents proving my name that they refuse to change it based on one student loan account?

Experian – corrected my name, but didn’t remove a single old address, stating that the addresses were listed as reported by the creditors. How can a creditor be reporting an address at which I never lived, and in one case, an address that doesn’t even exist? They make this all the more frustrating by reporting your addresses in a separate section of your report from your tradelines, and there’s no way of knowing which creditor is reporting which address. Experian does say that if you contact them by phone they will tell you which creditor is reporting which address, which is more than TransUnion was willing to do when I called them about the same issue.

At this point, I’m happy with my “Easy Stuff” results with Equifax. Nothing more to do there.

I’ll correct my name on my student loan account and then contact TransUnion again to have my name corrected.

I will call Experian and have them match up addresses with creditors. That could take awhile as Experian is reporting <strong><em>32</em></strong> different addresses for me. Seriously. Who’s lived at 32 different addresses?

My dumbest purchase ever

Debt Kid has posted a challenge at his blog wanting to know about <a href=”http://www.debtkid.com/share-your-dumbest-purchase-ever-win-my-ds-lite”>your dumbest purchase ever</a>. Since purchases can have a big impact on your credit score, I thought I’d share my dumbest purchase ever.

In 1993, I was newly married to a Private in the Marine Corps whose take home pay was about $600 a month and working as a waitress at a diner chain where I made $2.13/hour plus tips. And the tips were awful. On average, I’d say I brought home about $15 for a breakfast/lunch shift (6am to 3pm) which I worked most of the time and maybe about $40 for a lunch/dinner shift (11am to 8pm) which I worked maybe two or three times a month.

A door-to-door salesman came to our door multiple times, trying to find us both at home. Because we both had irregular schedules, I’d say he tried at least eight or nine different times before he showed up one day and found us both at home. We were young and naive and he seemed friendly, so we let him in and listened to his sales pitch.

He was selling a family photo club package. For the low, low price of $6,000, payable in monthly installments, we could join his family photo club. Benefits of membership included a “free” VCR that he promised to bring the next day if we signed up, a decent quality 35mm camera, a genuine leather photo album for displaying our beautifully developed family photos, and a huge book of coupons entitling us to photo developing, enlargements, prints from negatives, photo repair of ancient photos, and even special effects added to our photos (you’ve surely seen an infamous wedding photo with the couple’s face floating in the middle of a brandy snifter?).

For the rest of our lives, whenever we had any sort of photographic need, all we would need to do is clip a coupon from this giant coupon book, and mail it off to this company to be processed in 6-8 weeks. If the coupon book ran out, we could request another one.

There were a few catches, of course.

The first was that the “lifetime” membership actually expired in five years. So, how could they call it lifetime? Why, all we had to do was send off a letter to the company six months in advance of the expiration requesting that our membership be extended another five years. No cost to us except the stamp.

The second was that sending off film to be developed or photos to be enlarged with the coupons from the book actually wasn’t free. Each coupon had a price printed on it, and we had to include a money order for that price in the envelope as well. If I remember correctly, reprints were $1 each, enlargements varied in price from $2 to $10, depending on the size, and film developing cost us about $5. Um…wasn’t that about what that would cost us anyway? Even a little pricey?

But, being 19 years old, newly married when we had no business being married, and suddenly plunged into this world of trying to manage our $1500 total income each month, we bought it. It turned out years later when we were more comfortable talking to each other that neither of us had actually had the least interest in purchasing the package, but had been afraid to speak up since we had perceived the other as being interested.

For the next five years, this company deducted $100 a month from my husband’s meager little military paycheck, and we struggled. When the military uprooted us to move across the country, we had all of $300 to our name and ate nothing but cheap pot pies and tins of refrigerator biscuits for months at a stretch. There were times where we couldn’t afford to have sex because we couldn’t afford birth control! That $100 a month would have made a big difference.

I think all in all, we developed maybe a dozen rolls of film through this company and I sent off for three enlargements to 5×7, that don’t forget, cost us money. The VCR they gave us served us well for many years, but realistically we could have bought one pretty cheaply for ourselves. The camera they gave us was stolen from our car about four months after we signed up for the package.

So, in the end, I’d have to say that we spent $6000 on a VCR. Pretty dumb purchase.

CMRR Mail

It’s generally recommended to use CMRR (Certified Mail with Return Receipt) for communicating with credit reporting agencies, collection agencies, and creditors. It provides a trail of when letters were mailed and when they were received. If correctly used, CMRR can be used as evidence in court. Here’s how to send off a letter CMRR:

  1. The first thing you’ll need is a Certified Mail form and a Return Receipt form. These are available free of charge at your local post office or can be ordered free of charge from the USPS web site. A certified mail form looks like this:

    certifiedmailform

    It has a unique tracking number printed three times on the form – once at the far left side, and twice under the barcode.

    A return receipt form looks like this:

    returnreceiptform

    The return receipt form is double-sided and you will need to complete both sides of the form.

  2. When writing your letter to the creditor, collection agency, or credit reporting agency, be sure to reference the tracking number from the Certified Mail form in the header of your letter. Just a brief note near the date that says something along the lines of “Sent via Certified Mail: XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX on March 2, 2008″ will do.

    Even though the sending and receiving of the Certified Mail can be tracked through the US Postal Service, referencing the CM tracking number in the body of your letter itself is the only way to prove what the actual contents of the letter were. Be sure to make a photocopy of your letter before you seal the envelope.

  3. Place your letter in the envelope, seal it, and write the delivery and return addresses as normal
  4. Complete the Certified Mail form. It’s very simple. You only have to fill out the bottom right portion where it allows you to print who it is being sent to and the address where it is being sent.

    You will notice that the form is perforated between the two tracking numbers printing under the bar code. Do not tear the form at this perforation. Leave the form complete. The postal clerk will detach the form after they’ve completed their portion of the form and postmarked it for you.

    Attach the CM form to your envelope. The bar code portion of the form is sticky- simple peel off the backing, and fold the form over the top of your envelope. It should be attached at the top, to the right of your return address. A small green sliver will be on the back of the envelope, and the large portion with the barcode will be affixed to the front.

  5. Next up is the Return Receipt form. Start with the back, which simply has a large empty box where you can print your name and address. This will be used to mail the Return Receipt back to you as proof that the letter was delivered.

    On the front side, fill in the name and address of the company or person you are sending the letter to in box #1. In box #2, copy the tracking number from the CM form. In box #3, check the Certified Mail box.

    On the left and right side of the RR form on the side with your name and address, peel off the backing and stick the form over the delivery address on the envelope. When the letter is delivered, whomever received the letter will sign and print their name in the boxes on the upper right. The mail carrier will detach the form from the letter at the perforations, and the green card will be sent back to you.

    Attach the certified mail receipt, the post office receipt, and the return mail receipt to your letter and file it away to be referenced as needed at a future date.

Now you’re all set to start sending out those letters!

freecreditreport.com

Here’s something you might not know about freecreditreport.com: It’s Experian in disguise, trying to generate more profit from consumers.

The following quote is from: Fair Credit Reporting Act: How It Functions for Consumers and the Economy

“Ironically, all three agencies market products with ‘identify theft’ insurance to provide attorneys fees and expenses necessary to obtain the correction of their credit reports from those same agencies. Thus, consumers are faced with what can fairly be described as credit extortion. Consumers are told to buy the CRA products or else remain in fear that they will be inaccurate and full of fraud.”

If you have the time, I highly recommend you read the entire report. It seems the more I learn about the whole credit business, the angrier I become. If everybody knows that most credit reports contain errors, and getting those errors corrected is so time-consuming and difficult, then why are banks and employers and landlords still basing their decisions almost entirely on these reports and scores that are more likely to be wrong than right? I guess it’s because they don’t have many other options.

It seems like this shouldn’t be so difficult to get right in the electronic information age.

Still trying to correct the easy stuff

I never received any kind of acknowledgement or letter from Equifax. I haven’t recently pulled a copy of my credit reports, so I have no idea if it’s been corrected on Equifax’s side or not.

I’ve been extremely busy and a bit fed up with this endless cycle of not getting anywhere. But this is just the beginning of the long uphill climb. So I won’t give up now.

I guess my next step is to send out all that information that Experian has requested, and as long as I’m at it, I may as well send it off to Equifax and TransUnion as well to see if it gets me anywhere.

So far, I’ve been sending all correspondence regular mail. If you poke around the web, there are all sorts of theories on how to get better responses from the credit reporting agencies. Many people say to never use anything but Certified Mail with Return Receipt, and to include a reference to the tracking number directly in the letter itself, making sure to save a copy for your records. I’ve read all sorts of other tricks and tips, including sending only hand-written correspondence on yellow legal paper written in green ink. Something about that being difficult for them to OCR into their computerized system, forcing them to deal with it personally. At this point, I’m beginning to see how all these tricks and tips surfaced, and I’m starting to think that they might not be a half-bad idea.

I’m sending off copies of all requested proof of name and address to all three as my next step. I’m undecided as to whether I’ll use CMRR or yellow legal paper and a green pen. I’ll report back when I’ve made my decision and on the results.

My second attempt at correcting the easy stuff

So here I am still stuck at Step 3: Correcting the Easy Stuff. Frankly, if this is the easy stuff, I’m getting a little bit worried.

I haven’t heard back from Equifax yet. Hopefully that letter will be arriving in the mail soon. I’m curious about what Equifax will have to say about my name and address.

TransUnion did nothing. They sent me back a copy of my credit report with no changes from last time. The next day I got a separate letter stating that the name on my credit report simply reflected the name being reported to them by the creditors, and they couldn’t change it unless all the creditors starting reporting my new name. I called customer service to see if talking to a person would get me anywhere. The gentleman I spoke with wasn’t very helpful. He insisted that my old name was being reported by creditors and therefor couldn’t be changed by TransUnion. I said, “Who do you think knows my name better – me or some company I had a credit card from five years ago?” That accomplished nothing. So next I tried to get him to tell me which creditors were reporting my old name. At first he said he couldn’t tell me that, but then he finally said, “All of them” which I know is a lie as all of my credit cards, statements, and bills have my current name on them. I got nowhere fast.

It seems ridiculous to me that TransUnion insists on keeping an incorrect name on my credit reports even though I am able to prove with ID, social security card, and W2 that my name is incorrect simply because some random creditor is reporting an incorrect name. I’d think they’d be more concerned about their records being correct than that.

After my first attempt, all I got from Experian and Equifax was a request for more verification of my identity. This time Experian sent back another letter talking about the prevalence of identity theft and insisted that now they need a government issued identification and a utility bill, insurance, or bank statement to verify my account. Keep in mind that I’ve sent them a copy of my government issued identification twice now, along with a W2 showing my current name and address. It’s like a silly cycle of identity requests. I hope it eventually ends in my personal information on my Experian report being corrected. I’m afraid that if I send my government ID and say a bank statement, I’m going to get back a request for a Social Security Card or a W2, and nothing is ever going to be done. I don’t know if I’m comfortable putting so much information in an envelope and hoping it arrived safely. On the other hand, if I don’t, this seems likely to go on forever.

Identity Theft!

Just before Christmas I became yet another victim of identity theft. Somehow, someone who remains unknown to me cloned my debit card, somehow figured out my PIN, and made two rather large ATM withdrawals, emptying my checking account.

I have never loaned my debit card to anyone, and until this happened, I was the only person on the entire planet Earth who knew my PIN.

I don’t mind telling you that my bank is Washington Mutual and that they have been an absolute nightmare to deal with. I’ve been shuffled from department to department and am currently forced to deal only with a department mysteriously named “Fraud Prevention” who is only open 7am-4pm Monday-Friday and whose minimum hold time for actually getting through to speak with a person is upwards of 30 minutes. I have waited as much as 90 minutes to talk to someone. When I finally do get through to someone, most of the time they are not properly trained, and are unwilling or unable to explain the dispute process or assist me with my questions. So far, I have spoken to exactly one representative, named Diane, who was polite and took the time to explain things and answer all my questions. It was through Diane that I discovered the process of investigation can take 4-6 months.

From filing my police report, I learned two common methods crooks use to clone debit cards. If they’ve only cloned your debit card and are using it like a credit card to make purchases, then it’s likely that it happened at a restaurant. The waiter brings that greasy black folder, you put your debit card inside, he comes back and disappears for several minutes out of site with your credit card — and often, it seems, clones the card and uses it to go shopping after his shift has ended. The lesson — *never* pay with a debit card at a restaurant. Use cash if possible, or a regular credit card. Regular credit cards are much easier to deal with when you report fraudulent charges. Banks are suspicious and reluctant to help you out when it’s your debit card that’s used for fraud.

If a criminal has cloned your card and has your PIN, then it’s likely that the information was stolen at a gas station. The criminal parks a big truck in front of the pump, hiding it from the clerk inside and the security cameras, then in a matter of minutes, disassembles the payment mechanism, installs a card reader and a bit of electronics to capture your PIN, and puts in all back together. It’s impossible to tell that this has been done to the machine. You conveniently pay at the pump for your gas, your debit card number and PIN are stored for the criminal to come back and retrieve later. The lesson — *never* pay at the pump. Forgo the convenience and go inside the gas station to pay for your gas.

As if the ATM withdrawals weren’t enough, I mysteriously received an email from Washington Mutual, telling me that the name on my accounts had been changed through their web site. It said if I had not made the change, to call them at their customer service number (800) 788-7000. This is the correct customer service number for Washington Mutual. The email appears to have come from an address at wamu.com, and all the links in the email, though I never clicked on them, seem to be legitimate links to WaMu’s web site — they simply go to wamu.com. I’ve seen phishing emails, I know how they work, and how easy it can be to be fooled. But this one really does not seem like a phishing email. I called WaMu customer service, they claimed to have no knowledge of the email, and referred me to “Fraud Prevention.” Ugh. Thirty-five minutes later, the person on the other end of the line offered no help, insisted I had been sent to the wrong department and suggested I call my local branch. The woman at my local branch asked me to forward the email to their email fraud specialists, and I’m waiting to hear back from them about whether or not this email is a fraudulent phishing email or not. I’m concerned that somehow someone has access to my accounts online and changed my name. I don’t know. I don’t know if this is related to the fraudulent withdrawals or not.

I do not feel like my money is safe at Washington Mutual. I don’t feel confident that if another incident of fraud occurs on my account that Washington Mutual will respond to my crisis with empathy, efficiency or concern. I’ve been simply cashing my paychecks and purchasing money orders to pay my bills. I’m afraid to deposit money into any of my accounts at Washington Mutual. I’m also extremely frustrated and upset at the horrendous customer service I’ve received.

I chose Washington Mutual to begin with because they offered me free checking without direct deposit. My employer does not offer direct deposit, so most banks are not willing to give me a free checking account. I’m going to start asking for an exception because I need to get away from Washington Mutual.

My First Attempt at Correcting the Easy Stuff

As mentioned in my Action Steps posted called “Step 3: Correct the Easy Stuff“, I sent off letters to all three credit agencies requesting that they correct my address and name information. Enclosed with each letter was a photocopy of my driver’s license and a photocopy of the Personal Information section of my report from that agency showing the incorrect names and addresses.

Within two weeks, I had responses from all three agencies.

Equifax and Experian both claimed they were unable to locate my credit file and have requested I send more information to help them identify me. Both say that in addition to a copy of my driver’s license, they need a copy of my social security card, a copy of a paystub or a copy of a W2. This is accompanied by large-size bold text about how the FBI has named identity theft the fastest growing crime in America. I guess I’m supposed to feel grateful that they’re protecting me.

TransUnion was a little more helpful. They were able to locate my credit file and correct my address, but simply listed my current name under “Other Names” with an incorrect name still listed as the main name on my record.

Final results from first round of letters:
Correct addresses: 1 out of 3
Correct names: 0 out of 3

Preparing and sending out a second round with all required information.

Patience. Persistence.

Step 3: Correct the Easy Stuff

If you’re anything like most of us, you’ll notice some egregious errors in the section of your credit report called “Personal Info”. This is where your credit report lists your name, social security number, current and former employers, and current and former addresses. Somehow, it’s difficult for the credit reporting agencies to get your name correct, let alone your employers and addresses.

Ideally, you want to get that report to show your correct name, correct social security number, and your correct current address and nothing else.

There’s some dispute about the best way to go about that. Here’s the plan of attack I’ve decided to follow. I visited my local friendly DMV and got a copy of my driver’s license showing my current address. Yes, it cost me about $20, and no, you don’t have to get a new driver’s license when you move in California. You just have to report your change of address to the DMV. But having a driver’s license with my current address allows me to simply make a copy of my driver’s license and use that as proof of my current address. Then I don’t have to mess around with copies of utility bills and other forms of address verification that could get kind of complicated.

I’m sending off a letter to each of the credit reporting agencies that says something along the lines of:

You have addresses on my record that do not belong to me and are incorrect. My name is Credit Report Maven. Please remove all incorrect names immediately. My address is 123 Credit Report Maven Lane, Los Angeles, California. Please remove all incorrect addresses immediately.

I am enclosing a copy of my driver’s license showing my correct name and address. Per the Fair Credit Reporting Act, send me notification that these items have been deleted, as well as an updated copy of my credit report.

As I understand, Experian is the nightmare to deal with here, but Equifax and TransUnion should not be a problem. For these simple personal information disputes, you can use the telephone or online disputes or write letters like I did. For other types of disputes, you should use Certified Mail with Return Receipt.