How to Check Your Credit Report for ID Theft

29 February 2016

When it comes to protecting your identity, one of the most commonly cited strategies is to regularly review your credit file. However, according to a 2015 report by the Bank of Montreal, more than half of Canadians have never checked their credit.

For those who don’t have experience checking their credit reports, it can be difficult to know where to begin. But, once you learn how, it’s a rather simple habit to get into. This handy guide will walk you through how to request a credit report, how to review it and what you should do if you spot any inconsistencies.

Requesting your credit report

Law requires each of the two credit bureaus in Canada, Equifax and TransUnion, to give consumers access to their credit files free of charge once every 12 months. Equifax refers to this free report as a “credit file disclosure,” and TransUnion calls it a “consumer disclosure,” but the two are essentially the same thing: annual free access to the contents of your credit file.

To get your credit report free of charge you must submit a request to the bureau by mail, fax, telephone or in person. On your request, you can specify whether you’d like the report mailed to you or if you would rather pick it up in person from one of the bureau offices. The credit bureaus can also make your report available online, but to access it you must pay a fee.

With two reports (one from each bureau) available at no cost every 12 months, consumers have the option to either request both at the same time every year or to stagger the requests and receive a single copy every six months. Both strategies have their benefits and pitfalls, so it’s up to individuals to determine which schedule they prefer.

For example, simultaneous requests allow consumers to spot errors by comparing the two reports side-by-side. However, just because the reports are different does not necessarily mean one is incorrect and, similarly, consistency does not guarantee accuracy. Likewise, the staggered approach allows consumers to take a more frequent look at their files, therefore increasing their likelihood of catching signs of credit fraud or identity theft quickly. On the other hand, whenever they come across potential errors, consumers are encouraged to request both reports. With the staggered schedule, consumers would have to pay for this second request, as it would fall within 12 months of their last review.

Reviewing your credit file

When you receive a copy of your credit file, you may be surprised to see just how much data it includes. Credit reports include information about every loan or line of credit you’ve taken out in the last six years, as well as whether you regularly pay on time, how much you owe, your credit limit on each account and a list of authorized credit grantors who have accessed your file.

Each account is marked with a letter and a number. The letter will be either an “R” or an “I,” depending on whether the account holds revolving debt or is an installment account. The numbers go from zero to nine, ranging from accounts that are too new to rate to those in bad debt or have been placed for collection or bankruptcy, respectively. The best number to have next to your accounts is one, which means you pay your bills within the agreed period.

Checking for and reporting errors

As you review your credit report, look closely for any information that may look erroneous or unexpected. While this could simply be due to an error on the part of one of the financial institutions that reports your credit history to the credit bureau, it may also indicate you have become a victim of credit fraud or ID theft.

If certain data looks mistaken to you, you can write the credit agency to inform it of the error. The necessary form is typically enclosed with your credit report. Be sure to also send along any documents that support your side of the dispute. The reporting agency will then contact whoever submitted the data you’re contesting so that it can get to the bottom of things. If the file is changed, the bureau will send both you and any company that has requested your credit file in the previous two months a copy of your corrected report.

If your credit report shows activity that leads you to believe you have become a victim of identity theft, notify the credit agency and request that they place a fraud alert on your file. While this typically costs a small fee, it can help protect your identity by warning creditors to take extra steps to verify the identity of anyone claiming to be you. You should also be sure to notify local authorities of the crime, as well as report it to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.

To keep an eye trained on your credit report even more frequently than you can check it yourself, sign up for a credit monitoring service. It will regularly monitor your credit file for certain activity that may indicate fraud, alerting you so that you can take the necessary steps to protect your identity.