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MARCH 31, 2006 Five for the Money By Sonja Ryst A Roving Eye on Your Credit Americans living abroad can have a tough time accessing their credit histories. Here are some ways around the hurdles The Fair & Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA) now gives everyone with U.S. credit access to free annual reports. But if those U.S. citizens or legal aliens happen to be on an extended stay abroad, they might have a tough time. Scott Overfield is a case in point. Ever since he detected some fraudulent charges on his credit card account in August, 2003, he has been careful to do whatever he can to protect himself from identity theft. When he was living in California last year, Overfield exercised his right under FACTA to obtain a free annual credit report and make sure he agreed with the history in it. He did so by requesting his report online at AnnualCreditReport.com, and had no problems submitting his information to the Web site, which is maintained by the credit bureaus Equifax (EFX), Experian, and TransUnion. DISTANT STRUGGLE. But now Overfield lives in Britain. A couple of months ago, he tried to access AnnualCreditReport.com again from his current home, and all he got was an error message. He ended up surfing to TransUnion's Web site instead and paying them $29.95 to provide him with his credit reports (see BW Online,1/10/2006, "The Booming Biz of ID Protection"). Only afterward did Overfield find out that he might have gotten through to AnnualCreditReport.com if he had tried from a computer at a military base instead of from his residence. Overfield could have had it worse. Expatriates who try to obtain credit reports sometimes face delays. In fact, they might have to struggle to get their reports at all if their only address is overseas. 1 Joel Winston, associate director in the FTC's Privacy & Identity Protection division in Washington, D.C, which oversees the federal government's consumer-protection efforts, says his group has gotten calls from people overseas who were having trouble accessing their U.S. credit history. He says it doesn't happen frequently, but it's an issue. USA IP. People all over the U.S. have had access to free annual credit reports since at least September, 2005, after FACTA's enactment laid the groundwork in December, 2003. Sandra Farrington, an attorney in the Privacy & Identity Protection division, says lawmakers who voted for FACTA wanted to provide consumers with free access to their credit reports for various reasons. They thought it would help efforts to crack down on identity theft, give people a chance to protest inaccuracies in their credit history, and improve consumers' financial literacy, she says. But that's not as easy to accomplish from abroad. For example, the credit bureaus that maintain AnnualCreditReport.com only open the Web site to U.S. IP addresses -- in other words, computers that contain numeric code identifying them as from the U.S. That's why Overfield could use the site at a military base in Britain but not from his home. "The number one reason [restrictions on foreign access] exist is to protect individuals' information" from being stolen overseas, says Steven Katz, a spokesman at TransUnion. In a follow up e-mail, he added that TransUnion recognizes the importance of being able to access your own personal credit information in a timely manner, regardless of your geographic location. HIDDEN CHARGES. Of course, AnnualCreditReport.com isn't your only source for information about your credit history. You might have access to other credit report services, but the Federal Trade Commission says AnnualCreditReport.com is the only one it authorizes. And other services can be tricky to use. Some might sign you up for a "free" service that ends up costing you. Consumerinfo.com, doing business as Experian Consumer Direct, settled charges in August that it deceptively marketed "free credit reports" by not adequately disclosing that consumers would be signed up for a credit report monitoring service and charged $79.95 unless they canceled within 30 days. 2 Online scammers known as phishers have also put up their own fake credit- report sites in recent years, as a way to get people's social-security numbers, addresses, and other personal information. (Click here for the FTC's advice on how to protect yourself from phishing.) So what can expatriates -- or those traveling for an extended period outside the U.S. -- do to protect their stateside credit history? This Five for the Money offers five tips to help counter the challenges Americans face in monitoring their U.S. credit history outside the nation's borders. 1. Keep an active U.S. address While you can usually request a credit report from the bureaus by mail, it isn't always a cinch. (Click here for an application and directions on how to submit your request.) The credit bureaus maintain U.S. addresses in their records of U.S. credit, but they don't recognize the foreign addresses of people who have U.S. credit cards or other accounts. If you don't have a U.S. address that matches your name, social-security number and U.S. credit history, the credit bureaus won't mail you a report without additional verification of your identity. People who don't have U.S. addresses can notify their creditors to send U.S. credit bills to a friend in the States. Once your file registers that your friend's U.S. address is officially yours, the credit bureaus will mail your history to your friend when you want. But your friend will have to forward everything to you overseas. "We have found it hard [to get credit-history problems straightened out] for consumers who live abroad and don't have a U.S. address for mail," says Linda Foley, co-founder of the San Diego-based nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. 2. Mail your request express The Identity Theft Resource Center says expatriates concerned about fraud should contact the nearest U.S. embassy, so they can file paperwork about the incident with the U.S. State Dept. The idea is to create a documentation trail about the crime, says Jay Foley, who founded the Identity Theft Resource Center with Linda. 3 "The longer you wait to report it and deal with it, the less likely" your statements will be accepted, he warns. He recommends that identity-theft victims who don't have U.S. addresses mail their documentation with an international postal service like United Parcel Service (UPS) or FedEx (FDX). Make sure you track the mailing and get confirmation of the delivery, he adds. 3. Include extra information If you have a home address in the U.S. and continue paying bills to maintain it, you might want to include a copy of a bill when you mail your request for a credit report. The credit bureaus "need to insure that they're sending [the credit report] to the right person," says the FTC's Farrington. "You need to make sure you can demonstrate that" from overseas. 4. Freeze credit before you go Some states have laws that enable you to make the credit bureaus lock the information in your file with a password, in an effort to make it more challenging for criminals to access the information. It can take a few days to finish the process of removing the lock in some states. These "credit-freeze" laws vary widely by state and don't exist in all of them (click here to get the specifics about yours). But Foley recommends freezing your credit history if you can before you go overseas. 5. Get help from the U.S. consulate Angela Aggeler, a spokesperson at the Consular Affairs Bureau in Washington, D.C., says citizens can turn to their consulates to cope with identity theft that arises overseas. If you lose a wallet or handbag while abroad, the consulates will help you cancel your credit cards and contact the Social Security Administration about the loss of identification. You can also have friends send important documents to the embassy. Whether you're a bona fide expat, or only on an extended jaunt outside the U.S., a little vigilance will help keep your credit report in good shape. Ryst is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York 4
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