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Image by Pabitra Kaity
Looking for an apartment can be a time-consuming process, especially in this market.
So when one consumer found a good prospect on Craigslist, it was time to pounce. First, though, the supposed landlord wanted a screenshot of the renter’s credit score. All the applicant needed to do was click a link and input a name, address, and Social Security number.
The renter did as instructed and received a showing time. The problem? There was no house number listed, and the landlord wasn’t answering calls or emails.
As it turned out, the renter was one of many consumers who have been duped by a rental scam. The issue is so prevalent it merited a BBB scam alert.
What are Credit Score Scams?
Your credit score is an important number.
Lenders use it to gauge the risk you pose as a borrower. Before loaning you money to buy a home, car, college education, or anything else, a financial institution wants to look at the likelihood you’ll repay that money.
Earning and keeping a good credit score can be challenging, though, especially when we’re going through an unpredictable job market. Pandemics, job losses, and health crises can put us behind on our bills, lowering that score and making it tough to come back.
There are legitimate ways to push that score up again, but IT TAKES TIME. We want fast results, especially if we’re ready to buy a house or car.
But that rush to boost our score is how scammers dupe us.
Fraudsters will promise the world to convince us to pay money or turn over personally identifiable information (PII).
What’s PII? Information that can be used to apply for things in your name. It includes (but is not limited to):
- Your Social Security number
- Your mailing address and/or email address
- Your phone number
- Your driver’s license number
- Your insurance policy number
- Your bank account numbers
There are multiple ways a scammer can grab this information from you, but a credit score scam is one of the more direct ways. Since applying for credit requires providing so much PII, it’s a quick and easy way to get all the data they need to commit fraud.
Image by Pabitra Kaity
Types of Credit Score Scams
One thing credit score scams have in common is that they somehow manipulate your need to qualify for credit.
Here are some of the most popular.
1. Score Notification Scams
What is it? It’s easier than ever to monitor your credit score 24/7. Multiple sites will keep an eye on things and notify you when something changes. Unfortunately, though, that has brought fraudsters out of the woodwork. With this scam, you receive a text message or email that your credit score has changed. To see the new score, though, you’ll have to click a link. The link directs you to a website that prompts you for your personal information, which the scammers then steal.
How to spot it: Companies don’t randomly send you alerts about your credit score. You’ll have to sign up for that. Credit Karma and Equifax offer this service to paying customers, but you’ll know if you applied for those. Your bank or credit card might offer free credit score alerts as a perk of being an account holder, but there should be a steady stream of alerts, and it should be clear who’s sending them. Random alerts about your credit score should always throw up red flags.
How to avoid it: Never click links in messages. If you’re receiving an alert your score has changed, check to see if your bank or credit card provides your score. If not, myFICO will provide your score for a fee.
2. Credit Repair Scams
What is it? There’s no shortage of services offered to improve your credit. Some of these services charge an upfront fee, while others are after your personal information. While not all credit repair services are looking to scam you, these services offer nothing you couldn’t do yourself.
How to spot it: The telltale sign of a credit repair scam is the promise to repair your credit. No one can guarantee results within a set timeframe. Credit repair takes time and discipline, and the chances are a service isn’t going to stick with it over months and years.
How to avoid it: Ignore promises from credit repair services. If you want to improve your score, grab free copies of your credit report from all three bureaus and see if you can dispute any inaccuracies. Beyond that, credit-building cards are a great way to establish a reputation for paying on time.
3. Free Credit Report Scams
What is it? I mentioned above that you can get a free copy of your credit report. This is only available through AnnualCreditReport.com. Scammers have found a way to weasel in on the action, though. With a credit report scam, someone promises a free look at your credit report, but first, you’ll need to input some information. That information is exactly what an identity thief needs to commit fraud.
How to spot it: This scam has someone reaching out to you, perhaps through a message about your score changing, and you’re directed to a realistic-looking website. The website invites you to access a free copy of your credit report and/or credit score. The request for PII is the biggest hint that it’s a scam.
How to avoid it: Be stingy when it comes to giving out information about yourself. That includes your address, age, full name, and Social Security number. Be aware that a scammer can combine pieces of information with data obtained on the Dark Web to get the full picture necessary to defraud you.
4. Alternative Social Security Number Scams
What is it? If you can’t get approved for credit using your Social Security number, the idea of starting over with a new number can sound appealing. This scam preys on that desire to make a fresh start. You’re promised either a new Social Security number or a credit privacy number (CPN) that you can use to apply for loans. While you can use those numbers, you’ll be committing fraud and could serve jail time for it.
How to spot it: The good news is, if you go online to look for a CPN, search results will make it clear it’s illegal. But that doesn’t mean scammers can’t find you. They’ll typically advertise that they can help you get credit without giving details. Then, once you’ve reached out, you’ll be offered this magic number for a hefty fee, with no mention that it’s illegal to use it.
How to avoid it: Steer clear of credit repair services or anyone promising to improve your credit. If you encounter someone selling CPNs or alternative Social Security numbers, report it to the FTC.
5. Credit Check Scams
What is it? If you’re a renter, you’ll have to pass a credit check to qualify. But this scam has someone pretending to make the process easier. You’ll see a place advertised and show interest, only for the supposed landlord to ask that you send a screenshot of your credit score. You must click the link in the message and input some information, and your score will be displayed. But the website is fake, and you’ll input your information only to have it stolen.
How to spot it: There are multiple ways to be scammed while looking for rentals. To play it safe, use only reputable sites, avoiding scammer favorites like Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.
How to avoid it: Research the property management or leasing company before filling out an application, and insist on seeing the property before handing over your information or application fee. Never click links in messages unless you’re absolutely sure the sender is reputable.
Keeping Scams Away
There’s no avoiding the credit reporting system, especially if you’re in the market for a big purchase.
But there are some things you can do to work toward a healthy credit score while also protecting your identity.
1. Use Caution with Freebies
Whether it’s a free trial or something completely free, a healthy dose of skepticism can be a good thing.
Yes, there are plenty of reputable sites that offer free trials. But the key word there is “reputable.” Check the reputation of any company offering something for free. A lack of information is not a good sign.
Also, consider the information a business is requesting in exchange for the freebie. If you’re submitting details like your Social Security number and birthdate, that information could fall into the wrong hands even if it’s a reputable site.
Are you sure the information won’t be sold? What if the site suffers a security breach?
2. Stick with the Big Players
If you want to take a peek at your credit score (or your report), there are several options.
First, there’s the free credit report you’re entitled to each year through AnnualCreditReport.com. Yes, I know I’ve repeated that link multiple times…but it’s that important. That’s the best place to get your free reports.
That service doesn’t include your credit score, though.
The best resource for that is your bank or your credit card provider. My bank has a link on my dashboard. One-click, and there’s my score.
3. Do It Yourself
When it comes to improving your credit score, you’re the best one to do the job.
And it’s not as hard as you think.
Here are some things you can do to boost your score:
- Dispute inaccuracies: When you pull a copy of your report, chances are, there will be at least one inaccuracy on it. It happens. Disputing those errors forces the reporting creditor to provide proof. If the creditor can’t, the entry is removed.
- Use credit builders: You can find loans and cards that are specifically designed to boost your credit score. Your on-time payments each month will be reported to all three credit bureaus.
- Avoid missing payments: Life can get busy, and when that happens, it’s easy to miss a payment or two. I’ve found that putting everything on autopay makes a huge difference. Our garbage collector won’t do autopay, so I set it up with my bank to automatically mail a check on the due date each month.
- Keep balances low: I use a credit card for everything. At least once a week, I pay the balance due. Keeping it as close to $0 as possible helps with my credit utilization ratio, which is the ratio of available credit to used credit.
- Keep applications to a minimum: If you’re working to improve your score, it’s a great time to stop applying for new accounts. New accounts work against you in two ways. One, they increase the number of hard inquiries about your credit, which lowers your score. Two, they lower the average age of all your accounts. Too many new accounts can work against you.
As you can see from the above steps, building your credit score takes time. That alone shows the emptiness of those promises to boost your score quickly.
Credit to Monstera
What to Do if You’ve Been Scammed
If a credit score scam grabs your information (or your money), there are some things you can do to reduce the damage.
1. Reverse Any Charges
How did you pay the scammer? PayPal? Venmo? Credit card?
That should be your first step if you’re out some money. In many cases, you can dispute the charges and have them reversed.
If you haven’t lost money yet, that’s my biggest tip here:
Always pay through a method that can be reversed.
With PayPal, that means checking that “goods and services” box. Scammers will often try to get you to pay using “friends and family,” citing a need to avoid the fee. Scammers know that method can’t be reversed.
With your credit card, you simply reach out to the issuer and dispute the charge. They’ll walk you through their process.
There’s no guarantee you’ll get the money back, but you have a good chance if you’ve saved your documentation.
2. Contact Your Bank
Whether you lost money on the deal or not, it’s important to contact your bank if your account was involved.
That includes if you clicked on a link (and possibly downloaded a virus as a result).
Let your bank know that your identity and/or account information might have been compromised. The bank representative can take it from there.
If you handed credit card information over to a scammer, contact your card issuer. You’ll likely need to cancel that card and open a new one.
It’s also important to keep an eye on your accounts for the foreseeable future. Sometimes account numbers are sold on the Dark Web, which means you could see unauthorized activity pop up a year down the road (or longer).
3. Consider Identity Theft Protection
Identity theft is a real risk after a scam. Even if you handed over just a piece or two of personal data, keeping an eye out for fraud is important.
With identity theft protection, you can automate that process. Services like Aura, LifeLock, and IdentityForce monitor for signs of fraud and alert you if anything looks suspicious.
They’ll also help you clean up the mess if a scam does turn into a bigger issue.
4. Report the Scam
If you’ve been scammed, you aren’t alone.
You likely aren’t even the only person the fraudster scammed that day.
It’s important to take action to prevent the person from scamming others.
IdentityTheft.gov will help you REPORT IT TO THE FTC. But in addition to filing a report, you can follow the provided recovery guide.
If you see a scam but don’t follow through, you can report it at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. While the FTC doesn’t investigate every single report, your information is added to a pool of fraud reports that can help the FTC take action.
5. Prevent Future Scams
Fraud isn’t like lightning. It can strike the same place (and person) twice.
Lightning can do that, too, by the way!
It’s important to take measures to protect yourself (and your loved ones) from credit score scams.
It starts with knowing the steps to take to get your credit report. From there, make sure you’re at least looking at your free copy once a year.
If your credit score is available for free through your bank or credit card issuer, an occasional peek at that can help. If your score suddenly drops, you’ll know something’s up.
Lastly, know when to spot a scam and run! Even if it doesn’t look like a scam, stop before clicking on links in messages. If someone calls asking for information, just say no.
Credit score scams are an ongoing problem.
Scammers are growing more sophisticated, making their methods tougher to spot. By safeguarding your information and resisting the urge to click links, you can keep your identity and your bank account safe.
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