Phone ID fraud explodes: Here is the safeguard almost no one knows

Even people who think they have frozen their credit risk getting burned by a hot crime rising 18 percent in a year — bad guys stealing your ID and opening a mobile phone account. For land lines, it’s even worse: reported cases rose a whopping 150 percent in 2017, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

What’s going on? Many phone companies and other utilities use their own little-known credit clearinghouse, the National Consumer Telecom and Utility Exchange, experts say. You can ask for a free copy of your NCTUE report and request a freeze on it. That makes it harder for others to open fake accounts. But you have to know about it first, and by all accounts, few people do.

READ MORE: Wait, your own number is calling? It’s happening here. It’s a scam.

It’s must reading for residents of Florida, which leads the nation in overall fraud reports per capita.

“If (consumers) freeze their credit with only the three major credit bureaus they are still at risk of having a utilities account opened if that utility company uses the NCTUE for the credit report,” said Carrie Kerskie, director of the Identity Fraud Institute at Hodges University in Naples, Fla. She is also president of Griffon Force LLC., which offers restoration services and customized identity risk management services.

The three major credit bureaus refer to Equifax, Experian and Trans Union. A fourth bureau in the mix is Innovis. That’s where most people place credit freezes. That means creditors using those reports to consider a new account can’t get access without your permission. That raises the bar against crooks trying to open fraudulent accounts in your name, though you have to remember to unfreeze it to when you want to open new credit.

READ MORE: Feds to South Florida robocaller: Pay all of record fine

But a number of telecommunications providers, pay TV companies and other utilities make use of their own credit reporting resource.

Kerskie’s advice: If you are not applying for new utilities within the next six to 12 months, “place a credit freeze on the NCTUE credit file.”

How do you do that? Visit Call 1-866-349-5185 to get a free copy of your disclosure report, which utilities use to keep track of your payment history and other information. Not everyone has an NCTUE file, but if you do you’ll be sent a report of what they have on you by mail.

If there are any weird entries or accounts you don’t recognize, obviously that’s a red flag.

The report spells out further steps you can take to place a credit freeze on the utility exchange, though prominent web security blogger Brian Krebs wrote “the system appears to be completely borked at the moment.”

Craig Caesar, an outside counsel for NCTUE, told The Palm Beach Post on Monday: “The security freeze absolutely functions. The procedure on the website is the one to follow and it absolutely works.”

He estimated not a large number of consumers, perhaps hundreds, have placed freezes.

Krebs reported AT&T was a founder of the exchange in 1997.

An AT&T spokeswoman said the company does not rely exclusively on the utility credit bureau.

“We primarily work with the three major credit bureaus to help new customers open accounts,” AT&T spokeswoman Kelly Starling said. “We cannot use the customer’s identity to open an account if their credit is locked or frozen at the three major bureaus.”

But Kerskie said phone companies and other utilities are not required by law to check the major credit reporting bureaus, and cases she investigated appeared to provide examples where utilities relied only on the NCTUE.

When it comes to fake accounts in your name, what you don’t know can hurt you, she said.

“I would estimate that very few are aware of the NCTUE,” Kerskie said. “This greatly increases the risk of utilities identity theft.”

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