How to Protect Your Credit and Your Privacy

1. The first step to protecting your credit record is to get a copy of it. If there is invalid information on the report, have it corrected. If you have been denied credit within the last 30 days, the credit reporting agency is obligated under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) to provide you with a free copy of your credit report. Otherwise, you will be required to pay $15. (In Maryland, the cost for the report is $5; in California, $8; and in Connecticut, $10.)

When requesting your report, be sure to include your name, address, previous addresses for the past five years, your Social Security number, your signature, and a telephone number where you can be reached during the day.

In addition to your credit history, the report will include the names of every business that has requested your report within the past two years. If you do not recognize any of the companies, someone may have obtained credit in your name.

Since each credit bureau maintains its own files, some may have errors that others do not. You should be sure to check with more than one bureau. The ``big three'' are:

TRW P.O. Box 5450 Orange, CA 92613-5450 (714) 991-5100

Equifax 5505 Peachtree Dunwoody, Suite 600 Atlanta, GA 30358 (404) 250-4000 Trans Union Corporation Consumer Relations Dept. 208 S. Market Street P.O. Box 2926 Wichita, KS 67201 (312) 645-6008

If you disagree with anything on your report, contact the credit bureau. The FCRA requires the bureau to reinvestigate the facts in the dispute; if you do not agree with their conclusion, you have the right to include a statement in the report with your version.

There are also many local credit bureaus. Bankcard Holders of America, a nonprofit consumer-education group, publishes a ``credit-check kit'' that includes the name, address, and phone numbers of legitimate credit bureaus across the United States, as well as a pamphlet that explains in detail your rights under the FCRA. The kit costs $2 and is available from:

Bankcard Holders of America 560 Herndon Parkway Suite 120 Herndon, VA 22070 (703) 481-1110

2. Obtain a statement of your earnings from the Social Security Administration every two years. This will tell you if someone else is earning wages under your Social Security number. If you suspect an error, you have three years, three months and 15 days after the mistake was made to challenge it.

To get your statement, you need to fill out a Request For Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement form, which can be ordered by telephone from the Social Security Administration: (800) 234-5772.

3. You can ``opt-out'' of direct marketing and telemarketing by having your name added to the databases maintained by the Direct Marketing Association. Write to:

Telephone Preference Service Mail Preference Service Direct Marketing Association 6 East 43rd Street New York, NY 10017-4646 (212) 689-4977 ext. 369

The major credit bureaus also use their credit databases for direct marketing, and many magazines sell their subscription lists for advertising purposes. You can write to each company that has your name and address and ask that your names not be released for marketing purposes.

4. You can get a copy of your medical information file by writing to:

MIB, P.O. Box 105, Essex Station Boston, MA 02112 (617) 426-3660

MIB will tell you if they have a file on you, but in some cases they will send its contents only to your physician or dentist. Be sure to include that person's name and address.

5. Do not permit merchants to record your credit or charge-card number on personal checks; these numbers have sometimes been transcribed and used for fraudulent purposes.

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