Back in 2018, I needed a new winter coat—a heavy-duty one that would withstand many frigid New York winters. I took advantage of a big sale and opened up a new L.L. Bean Mastercard in order to get a huge discount on a coat. Before I even wore it, though, someone stole my identity and made fraudulent purchases with the information from my new credit card. I found this out when I got my first bill and there were several charges from places I'd never been.
I called the credit card company, and they agreed that I wasn't responsible for the charges. I thought that cleared the matter up—but it didn't. The identity thief managed to change my address, email, and phone number before one more legitimate purchase (a pair of pants for my husband) made its way into the billing cycle. Because I don't typically use store-specific credit cards, I never used the card again—so I wasn't expecting any additional bills, and didn't think it was odd that I didn't get any. I had completely forgotten about buying that one pair of pants (especially since I wasn't the person, ahem, wearing them).
In 2019, I received a notice from a collection agency saying I owed a balance of $206.24 on my L.L. Bean Mastercard. I was confused by this and called to ask for an explanation. I was told my original purchase of $62.14 (the pants) was now $206.24 because of late fees. The agency said I could dispute this by fax—clearly a tactic to dissuade people from making disputes, as many people (myself included) don't have fax machines. But I found a free service that uses email to send a message to a fax number, and eventually, after several phone calls and letters, the collection agency offered to settle with me for $173. Figuring this was my best option, I agreed and paid.
Fast forward to 2020, when I needed a new laptop. I applied for financing and was denied. I was surprised, because I thought I had excellent credit. So I logged on to a credit reporting agency website to check my credit report, and found out my credit score had been downgraded from "Exceptional" to the lower range of "Good" (but apparently not good enough to get financing for my new computer).
My credit report showed that I made late payments on the L.L. Bean Mastercard for seven months. I filed a dispute with the credit reporting agency and placed a fraud alert on my account. A few weeks later, I received an update on my dispute: Although my version of events was deemed true, the credit reporting agency didn't agree to change my credit rating or remove the information that said I'd missed multiple payments.
Disputing the results of my dispute, I then filed a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a government agency that makes sure consumers are treated fairly by banks, lenders, and other financial companies. The CFPB's findings agreed with my stance that I should not be penalized for not paying a bill I'd never received—and this resolution meant the erroneous information about late payments was finally removed from my credit report. Subsequently, my FICO score went back up by 108 points. An added bonus was that the CFPB decided I was entitled to get back $110.86 of the settlement I'd paid to the collection agency, and I received a check in that amount from the bank that issued the credit card.
Credit card fraud is a common occurrence
A Federal Trade Commission study found that one in five Americans has an error on a credit report, and a Consumer Reports survey also found that credit errors are common; of the 6,000 people surveyed, 34 percent of those who checked their reports found mistakes that could lower their credit scores. More than half the people surveyed who tried to fix the error were rejected, ignored, or had other problems that prevented them from rectifying the situation (which clearly happened in my case).
What should you do if you've been the victim of credit card fraud? According to TransUnion (one of the three major credit reporting agencies along with Experian and Equifax), if you think you've been the victim of fraud or identity theft, you should alert your banks and cancel your credit cards. You can also report the fraud to the Federal Trade Commission. Consider placing a credit freeze on your credit reports and adding a fraud alert (fraud alerts are available at no cost) to your credit report. If you place a fraud alert, you're entitled to a free copy of your credit report from all three credit reporting agencies. If you place an extended fraud alert, you're entitled to two free credit reports in a 12-month period.
How often should you check your credit report?
The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) gives Americans the right to a free credit report every 12 months, which you can claim by visiting the website AnnualCreditReport.com. But some experts recommend checking your credit report about four times a year, or even more. Many credit cards, like American Express, also offer a free credit report or fraud alert services (whether or not you're a cardholder). Credit reporting agencies will provide access to more frequent credit reports for a small fee. Right now, through December 31, 2022, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax are offering all U.S. consumers free weekly credit reports through AnnualCreditReport.com to help protect Americans' financial health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Equifax, checking your own credit report won't hurt your credit score. When you check your own credit report, it's considered a "soft inquiry" (a "hard inquiry" comes from potential lenders reviewing your credit history).
Be persistent in resolving errors
If I'd simply paid the bill I received from the collection agency without questioning it, I would still have an error on my credit report, and my credit score would have remained lower. I had to take numerous steps to resolve the issue—calling my credit card company, calling and faxing the collection agency several times, checking my credit report, filing a dispute with a credit reporting agency (twice), and finally, filing a dispute with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. All of this took time and diligence. But my persistence paid off. Not only am I $110.86 richer, it's less likely that I'll be turned down the next time I apply for a line of credit.