INDIANAPOLIS — Throughout the pandemic, identity theft has exploded in Indiana, and if you’re not keeping a close eye on your information, you could risk becoming a victim.

“It has been very unprecedented. We’ve seen a significant rise in the number of complaints,” said Scott Barnhart, Chief Counsel and the Director of Consumer Protection Division for the Indiana Attorney General’s Office.

Data obtained by CBS4 Consumer Investigations revealed identity theft complaints to the Indiana Attorney General’s Office increased 191% in 2021. There were 4,078 complaints in 2021, up from 1,401 in 2020.

The 2021 number is a staggering increase of 1,326% from 2019, when 286 complaints were reported.

“When you see those kind of numbers and that kind of trend, it is becoming a very significant problem and one that consumers should be aware of,” said Barnhart.

Reports from Hoosiers to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) were almost three times higher. An FTC data map shows 11,866 identity theft complaints in 2021, or about 176 per 100,000 people.

Nationwide, more than 1.4 million identity thefts were reported to the FTC in 2021. Government documents or benefits fraud was the most commonly reported type, followed closely by credit card fraud.

Identity theft protection: Checking your credit score isn’t enough

Identity theft can have devastating impacts for victims. Experts in consumer fraud and fraud protection said Hoosiers need to take steps to ensure their information is safe.

“Once it gets out there, it is hard to get it back and it can be used by any number of individuals — and individuals that are not motivated by the best intentions,” said Barnhart. “It can be devastating, and it can be particularly frustrating for consumers to fix, and it can have long-lasting implications into their consumer life and their financial life.”

One step you can take is to check your credit score, but we’ve learned, that alone isn’t enough.

“A credit score certainly doesn’t tell the full story,” said Joe Fitter, Senior Lecturer at the Kelley School of Business at IU Bloomington.

Still, it’s a step. We asked some Hoosiers whether they check their credit score and how often.

“I do, my bank has free monitoring for it, so every time I open my bank account, really,” said Alice Lawson.

Lawson, who lives in the Indianapolis area, said she plans to take even more steps to protect her identity.

“I just like to know. I think I want to be in control of me and my finances. I’m in my early 20s, so it’s kind of a whole new world for me, so being as in control as I can be like early in my adult life and career is a good thing for me to do,” said Lawson.

Clarissa Lovall said, “before the pandemic, I checked it quite regularly, almost monthly, but since the pandemic hit, I usually only check it when I get an alert from my email or the app.”

Experts said they do encourage you do check your scores, but more importantly, they encourage you to check your credit reports that tell the story behind your score, and check them often.

This is one of several steps they want Hoosiers to consider taking to better protect against credit fraud and be proactive in monitoring for any unusual changes.

Step 1: Check your credit report weekly

“Monitoring is important. how you monitor is less critical,” said Fitter.

Both experts told CBS4 they recommend people check their credit report as frequently as a weekly basis.

“You can either do preventative maintenance if you will, or once you find out that you’ve been scammed, you can stop it and take advantage of that, doing it on a regular basis,” said Barnhart.

Checking credit reports got even easier during the pandemic.

“I think in terms of in April 2021, when they opened it up to allow free credit reporting every week, was a sea-change in what they’ve done historically in understanding that viewing your credit once a year is not enough, it’s not frequent enough and it’s not protecting of the consumer enough,” said Barnhart.

Three major credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion went from offering one free credit report per year to one free credit report a week. Weekly access was extended until at least April of 2022.

“Greater access is helpful to a consumer’s financial health, right, so if they know what their status is, it’s important if they’re going to go buy a house, if they’re going to buy a car, if they’re going to get an additional credit card,” said Barnhart. “That credit history, that credit report is important for them in that process and if they have a scammer or fraudster out there taking advantage of that, they may not know.”

CBS4 Investigates found that getting started and accessing your free credit report is as easy as visiting this link. It’s something experts recommend everyone take advantage of.

What are the first signs of identity theft on your credit report?

“You’re looking for two things,” said Barnhart. “You’re looking for accuracy in the information that’s in there, or you’re looking for errors.”

Fitter said, “You have to make sure that you’re seeing an improvement in your score if that’s your goal. But the other important aspect is identity theft is rampant. So you wanna make sure the information in your report in your record is accurate.”

Some of the things you want to look out for are any new accounts opened that you didn’t authorize, any misspellings on your report like your name or address, any incorrect reporting, like a loan that has been satisfied and shows as pending, or information that may be inaccurate in terms of balance errors.

“You’re looking for mistakes and those mistakes may be subtle in terms of a wrong middle initial,” said Barnhart.

“Scammers are very attune to they rely on speed, they rely on ‘I’m just gonna look over and glean it and make sure that everything’s okay,’ and there could be a small error that you don’t pick up on that could be important in terms of somebody creating another account, creating another identity later on down the line,” he added.

Fitter wants to encourage Hoosiers to also look for ‘hard inquiries’ on your credit that you didn’t authorize.

“Meaning someone is trying to open credit in your name but they don’t have all of the information so they can’t quite impersonate you yet but they’re getting there,” he said.

Experts also add that you should be checking for consistency in your credit reports across the three major credit checking bureaus, rather than focusing on one specific bureau to receive reports from.

Step 2: Freeze your credit

According to the FTC, placing a freeze on your credit is the best way to protect yourself and prevent criminals from opening new accounts in your name.

“Credit freezing is an important part of the process and one that consumers should seriously consider,” said Barnhart.

This is how it works:

  • You can place a “freeze” on your credit file at any time, but you have to contact each major credit reporting company, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, to do so.
  • A credit freeze prevents prospective creditors from being able to access your credit file, preventing you or others from opening accounts in your name.
  • Freezing your credit won’t affect your credit score and you will still be able to do things such as use existing credit cards, apply for a job, buy insurance, or rent an apartment without lifting or removing it.

Is freezing your credit only necessary if you suspect you’ve become a victim of identity theft?

Experts say no.

“If somebody’s in a lull and says, ‘Hey I’m not looking for new housing, I’m not looking for a new house, a new car,’ freezing credit can be an important step to stopping fraudsters from getting access to your accounts,” Barnhart said.

The good news is, a credit freeze lasts until you remove it and you can temporarily lift the freeze if you need to apply for new credit.

Indiana ID theft victim uses credit freeze

Last year, someone stole Brad Snodgrass’ identity and claimed unemployment benefits in his name.

“The Department of Workforce Development paid out a claim of approximately $1,000,” said Snodgrass.

Snodgrass spent what he said was an estimated 80 to 100 hours battling the state to prove he didn’t receive the money or file for the claim.

Eventually, with the help of CBS4’s sister station, the state acknowledged Snodgrass’ claim was fraudulent. He said fortunately, he was spared from his credit being impacted, but he has since also taken the steps to put a freeze on his credit to prevent any further headaches.

“Since this has happened, I’ve put a credit freeze on all of my credit,” Snodgrass said. “I’ve also enrolled in Experian, and I get a weekly report on anything that happens from my credit and also through my credit card. They’ll inform me of any charges that look non-customary.”

For Snodgrass, becoming a victim of identity theft was shocking. He said he has always been careful with finances and has never been unemployed, making the situation even more frustrating.

“I never had any warnings, never had any issues, no problems with credit cards or charges or anything like that and you know all the sudden, luckily our personnel department immediately contacted me when the Department of Workforce Development contacted them,” he said.

Snodgrass said, for him, knowing there is a credit freeze on his account helps put his mind at ease that his information and identity is protected. He knows how quickly scammers can access parts of your life.

“With the credit freeze it’s going to eliminate you from having to go back and repair this damage that’s been done,” said Snodgrass.

Step 3: Track changes to your credit score

Experts advise the best way to monitor for credit fraud is by checking your credit reports, however, you are also encouraged to track changes to your credit score.

Although the free credit reports provided weekly by the three major reporting bureaus do not include credit scores, there are easy ways to track your credit scores. Most credit card companies provide your FICO score for free.

Why should you track your credit score?


Average Indiana credit score in 2020: 708, up from 699 in 2019

Experian

While a credit report details all of your credit history, your credit score is actually calculated based on the information in your report and used to determine your creditworthiness, affecting everything from credit card approval to interest rate for a mortgage.

With that being said, because your score can have such a big impact on your financial life, you want to make sure you maintain a good credit score and check it regularly.

Which credit score should you check and should you be alarmed if your score looks different on different apps?

Experts note that there are multiple versions of your credit score and that’s because the three credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — all compile your credit report differently.

“Each of those companies have a different formula or a secret sauce that they may use to create their own simulated credit score,” said Fitter.

“You then have other companies, for example Fair Isaac Corporation, we’ve heard of them, you know them as FICO. They have created their own proprietary methodology of scoring your credit, but there are other scores that are also used for example Vantage, your Vantage 3.0 is another score that may be used,” Fitter added.

Source: Experian (*Data through October 2020)

If your credit scores are showing different across multiple apps or methods you’re using to check, Fitter said there is no need to panic just yet.

“Some of the newer credit scoring mechanisms are starting to pull in things that traditionally were not part of the credit score.

One example, he said, would be a student who has paid their cellphone bill successfully two, three, even four years in a row.

“They may get some credit score of benefit from that and the newer reporting methodology, but not in the older reporting methodology,” said Fitter.

“Sometimes this can simply be a timing issue and you’ll often see that month-to-month, one scores a few points lower, one scores a few points higher and then the following month they reverse,” said Fitter.

He said, of course, there can be times that there are factors impacting your score, which is why he encourages people look beyond just the score and carefully review their credit reports.

“It’s pretty rare but in some instances one of the credit reporting companies could be carrying a mistake or some mistaken information on your credit report,” said Fitter.

Other tips Fitter suggested: make payments on time, keep your balances low and don’t have too many outstanding credit lines. If you follow these suggestions, monitor your accounts for red flags and things look good, there should be no need to panic.

What to do when someone steals your identity

CBS4 Investigates wants to help you recognize whether someone has gained access to your identity and what to do if that happens.

“The quicker, the sooner that you get to it, the easier it is to fix,” said Barnhart.

Some steps officials encourage you take if you believe you have become a victim of fraud or identity theft are:

  • Contact the three credit reporting companies (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) and place a fraud alert on your credit report
  • File an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
  • Create a personal recovery plan to help take back control of your identity, which may include creating letters to help you resolve your problem and direct you to the steps needed to close new accounts opened in your name or remove unauthorized charges on existing accounts
  • File a complaint with the Indiana Attorney General’s Office using this form

You can also contact each credit agency by phone if you prefer not to open online accounts:

Equifax
Equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services
800-685-1111

Experian
Experian.com/help
888-EXPERIAN (888-397-3742)

Transunion
TransUnion.com/credit-help
888-909-8872

The Indiana Department of Revenue laid out a list of questions frequently asked by Hoosiers surrounding identity theft and what criminals do with that information once it is obtained. You can view the breakdown by visiting the state’s website.