Identity theft can deal serious damage to your finances. And repairing its effects can be stressful and time-consuming, especially when it comes to repairing the damage to your credit.
Just ask New Jersey resident, Erin (who asked us not to use her last name, as she was a victim of identity theft). This, plus credit problems arising from her recently deceased parents’ financially accounts, dragged her score down by nearly 50 points, keeping her from the near-perfect credit she had worked hard to earn.
There was no special trick to Erin saving her credit scores. It took hours of calls, but she ended up with a giant credit boost over one weekend this past March.
When the Last Thing on Your Mind Is Your Credit Report
Erin’s credit troubles arose during a time of grief. Her mother died in September 2010. Months later, in March 2011, her father also died.
At 27-years-old, Erin was working to become the administrator of her parents’ estate. They left no will, and Bank of America was looking for a late credit card payment belonging to her father.
Erin told the bank she couldn’t send the payment because she hadn’t been appointed the administrator yet. Once she was appointed in June, she made the payment. She wouldn’t learn until years later that the late payment had ended up on her credit report. In the meantime, she ran into another problem: identity theft.
Just before Christmas 2015, Erin got an alert on her phone from Sprint telling her the new lines she ordered were ready. Problem was, she hadn’t ordered any new lines. She checked her account and saw that someone had added three brand-new iPhones to it.
Whoever had done so was using Erin’s address and Social Security number to get these new devices. And because Erin had good credit, they were able to put the phones on her bill and walk out of three different Sprint stores with three new phones. Erin said her identity was also used to make purchases at AT&T, Verizon, Nordstrom’s, Macy’s, Target and Bloomingdales.
Hours of Phone Calls
To this day, Erin doesn’t know who stole her identity, which is often the case for identity theft victims. She changed all her passwords and started working the phones.
“It was just basically a ton of phone calls,” she said. “Each phone call probably lasted between 35 minutes and an hour.”
Lisa Belot, a spokeswoman for Sprint, said retail workers use scanners to authenticate customers’ driver’s licenses and other technology to prevent fraud. The company urges customers to regularly update passwords and to never share account info with a third party unless the request comes from a trusted source, she added.
With each company, Erin had to start with customer service, which transferred her to the fraud department before they agreed to send letters saying she wouldn’t be responsible for the charges. She filed a report with her local police department and called the three nationwide credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — to put security freezes on her credit reports.
In doing this, she kept anyone from pulling her credit reports to keep anyone from opening lines of credit using her stolen Social Security number. She had never checked her credit reports or scores regularly until her identity was stolen, but she started soon after.
That’s when Erin finally saw the late payment to Bank of America was on her report.
Normally, said Betty Riess, a spokeswoman for Bank of America, once the bank is notified that a customer has died, it removes any fees and interest assessed eight days before and after the notification. Any delinquencies should have no effect on the credit report of the estate administrator.
Therefore, Erin should have been off the hook for the late payment. But after Credit.com looked into Erin’s case, Riess revealed that Erin had been listed as an account holder on the account along with her father when it opened in 2010.
Erin had been unaware of this and expressed surprise when she found out this year. She had helped her dad with paperwork and bills after her mother died, but she had her own credit cards.
“There would have been no reason for my name to be on the account,” she said.
She also couldn’t find any mention of her name on any of the Bank of America documents she has and says she still keeps a thick file folder of paperwork from her credit fiasco. Erin does acknowledge she may have been on the account without remembering — noting it was a long time ago and during a difficult time.
One Giant Leap for a Credit Score
Despite the credit report and the leftover late payment, Erin still had a decent credit score around 680 at the start of 2017. She had built it up after separating from her ex-husband in 2009, when her score was in the 500s.
After clearing the identity theft off her credit reports, her score shot up to an excellent 767. But around that time, another check of her reports showed the Bank of America payment had remained on her Experian report.
She checked with Experian in February to see what was up, and the agency said the removal of the payment was still pending. When she checked at the beginning of March, it was finally removed. The effect was to rocket up her score 46 points to a near-perfect 804.
Erin gained more than an excellent score from the experience. She also learned good credit habits.
“I’ve been good about always paying on time and making as big of a payment, if not the entire thing, since 2011,” she said.
What You Can Do
To others in the same situation, Erin advised checking the federal IdentityTheft.gov website, which breaks down the steps required to recover from identity theft.
Rod Griffin, director of Public Education for Experian, said if you share a joint account with your parent and they die, it’s important to check your credit report to make sure they’re accurately reported. The account may be updated with a statement saying the parent is deceased to keep anyone from using their identity fraudulently. All three national credit bureaus have similar policies.
Meanwhile, your credit report should still say the account is open and active, Griffin said. (For starters, you can check your credit report summary for free on Credit.com)
“As a cosigner or joint account holder, you share full responsibility for the debt, so you may be held liable for any remaining balance on the account,” he said.
While Erin said the experience was a valuable lesson, it didn’t sound like she’d risk going through it again.
“It was really difficult,” she said. “It was probably more difficult because I was stressed and worried about what the implications might be.”