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Financial health: Protect personal credit score

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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America. It affects the rich and the poor and it can even affect your children.

Unfortunately we usually do not know we are victims until the harm has been done to our credit history, our bank accounts and our good names. It is important to take steps to prevent that harm in the first place.

The first step is that everyone should check their credit report annually. Making such a check is free with each one of the three reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. If you select a different reporting agency every four months, you are assured to pick up a problem — such as someone stealing your credit — when it is small, rather than a major, credit casualty.

The best way to undertake this check is by using the site www.annualcreditreport.com, which was established by the Amended Fair Credit Reporting Act. It is free and each agency must provide your report.

This check does not include your credit score. To get the numeric reflection of your credit, you generally have to pay a fee.

Checking your report can help you discover if someone has already absconded with your good name, accessed your credit history and probably obtained a credit card or worse in your name.

However, the best protection may be to act before your identity is stolen. A security freeze is a voluntary block an individual may place with a credit reporting agency (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion) that prevents an identity thief from opening a new account or getting credit in your name.

One of the best ways we can protect ourselves is to place a security freeze on each of our three credit reports with the major reporting agencies. This can be done online in less than five minutes per site and is free.

The agency will have your credit locked down within 24 hours. If you need to unlock your credit to apply for a new credit card, buy a car or a home, you just go back to the sites and unlock your credit while your requesting company does the credit check. Afterwards, you should relock it.

The easiest method for putting in place a security freeze is by using the North Carolina Department of Justice website http://www.ncdoj.gov/freefreeze . On this page, you will use the online form utilized to lock your credit with each agency.

Once you access the form, you must enter your name, address, date of birth and social security number. You set up a PIN to allow you access. This must be done three times — one for each site.

Afterward you can sign up for CreditKarma, which will tell you they cannot access your credit because it is locked.

To lift the freeze, use the same form from the N.C. Department of Justice site and enter your PIN. Your credit may be accessed by the person or bank you chose. Just be sure to remember to lock it back down afterward.

The third thing you should do to protect your identity is to be careful with it. Do not give your personal information freely. Always question any site that requires you to give personal info including your passwords. Think before you type.

Store your passwords and PINs in a safe place. Regularly change your passwords and be sure they are difficult to detect.

Remember your credit score (credit report) is your No. 1 financial asset and the portal for not only borrowing money but also for jobs and even insurance. Put a security freeze in place and make sure your credit rating is protected.

Wanda Naylor is a member of the Department of Finance at East Carolina University. Contact her at NAYLORW@ecu.edu.

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