This content is sponsored by Credit Karma, which compensates The Penny Hoarder for individuals who sign up for Credit Karma’s services through links in this article.
As someone who’s been there, let me tell you: Identity theft is no fun.
And it’s not just because you suddenly owe money for something you never bought (which already is a pretty serious bummer).
If fraudulent charges go to collections, they can affect your credit score.
Consider your credit score kind of like an SAT score for your financial life. It’s derived from your credit history — including repayment habits, how long you’ve had credit and how many different kinds of credit you have. Lenders use it to determine your creditworthiness.
In other words, it’s a really, really important number.
Basically, it’s supposed to summarize how well you deal with money.
But just like an SAT score, it doesn’t always offer a full picture — especially when someone’s been tampering with your information.
And since banks and other lenders rely heavily on your score to decide whether or not they should trust you with a car loan or a mortgage, you want them to have as much accurate data as possible. Your credit score has a tangible impact on your life!
And while building your score is (ideally) up to you, identity theft can foil your chances even if you do nothing wrong.
Trust me, this is one scenario where you’ll want to take my word for it rather than find out for yourself.
Credit theft is unfair and unpleasant to deal with…
… but it’s also largely avoidable.
There are tons of tools to help you avoid my fate. And if you know where to look, they’re stupid simple — and totally free.
Where to Get Your Free Credit Report
You might know that you’re entitled by federal law to a free credit report from each credit bureau every year.
But your annual report doesn’t include your actual credit scores, which are a nice, easy benchmark for figuring out if something’s wrong.
Plus, after your initial report from each bureau, you’ll have to wait a whole 12 months for another. A lot can happen in a year!
Other “free” credit report websites ask for a credit card before they’ll show you your information — because even though the first glimpse is free, it’s easy for the company to get your money when your card’s already on file.
I ended up spending thirty bucks on a “deluxe report” from a certain well-known “free” credit report site — totally extraneous information — by accident.
The site asks if you want to see your “full score” (misleading at best, since there are literally hundreds of credit scores), and places the “Yes!” button exactly where you’d expect the “No thanks” one to be.
Since they already have your information, that click is an expensive mistake — and you have to jump through the hoop of actually calling the company to fix it.
That’s why we love Credit Karma, which offers free credit scores and reports that are actually free.
How to Use Credit Karma to Avoid Identity Theft
Signing up for Credit Karma is super easy and fast — it only takes a few minutes.
Best of all? No credit card required. Not at sign-up, and not anytime afterward, either.
That’s because the company doesn’t make money by gouging you for extras, or even by selling your information or bombarding you with irrelevant ads.
Instead, they use your credit information to make tailored-to-you suggestions for relevant, actually-helpful products and services — like refinancing options if you’re overpaying for a loan, or low-interest rewards credit cards if you’ve got a high score.
So even if you’re pretty sure you’re not a victim of identity theft, it’s worth checking out. I mean, it’s free, and it’s always good to know where you stand… and you might even find a product you could really use.
Once you get set up, the first thing you’ll see is a really user-friendly overview of your current credit situation, including scores from both TransUnion and Equifax, and markers to let you know about any recent changes.
(You’ll see that my own scores, although still quite good, have gone down lately — I may have applied for one too many credit cards in quick succession chasing those sweet rewards!)
Be sure to poke around your entire profile — there’s lots of information in here to help you get your credit where you want it to be.
You can even see all the different factors affecting your scores, how much they’re affecting them, and click through to read expert credit tips.
You can also track all your spending through Credit Karma, which has a mobile app so you’re always in touch with your information.
But if you’re concerned about identity theft, you’ll want to head to the “Credit Reports” tab.
There, you can confirm all your personal and account information. If you see something you don’t recognize — be it an address or an inquiry — something fishy might be going on.
Credit Karma makes it easy to start the process of disputing an error if you see one, and it lists items warranting your attention conveniently at the bottom of the page, so you can review them all at once.
Trust me. If your credit report’s a mess (for any reason), it’s nice to have some part of the process be simple.
Have You Been a Victim of Identity Theft?
Credit Karma is a handy tool to monitor your credit score and report, no matter where you stand.
But if you do discover fraudulence on your report, don’t freak out! It’s possible to fix it… although it may take some time.
When I discovered my identity had been stolen, I was lucky enough to find a website detailing the exact right wording to get the collections agencies off my tail. You can read about that particularly messy chapter of my life here.
Now that I’m a full-time Penny Hoarder, my report’s looking much spiffier — but hopefully, with a watchful eye and free tools, you won’t ever have to know what identity theft feels like.
Your Turn: When’s the last time you checked your credit report?
Disclosure: This content is sponsored by Credit Karma, which compensates The Penny Hoarder for individuals who sign up for Credit Karma’s services through links in this article.
Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder and recovered identity theft victim. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.