HARRISBURG - Attorney General Linda Kelly recommends that consumers add a careful review of their credit information to their list of New Year's resolutions.
"The start of a new year is a time when many people make plans to change old habits and improve their lives, like exercising more or losing weight," Kelly said. "Credit issues can have a major impact on your life, so we urge consumers to consider 'healthy credit' as part of their planning for 2012."
Kelly noted that many consumers only think about credit when planning a major purchase, like buying a home or a car, which is the worst time to learn about negative credit information. She encouraged consumers to regularly check their credit history and financial accounts for signs of potential problems and be proactive when dealing with those issues.
"If you only balance your checkbook once a year, it becomes a complex and time-consuming task," Kelly said. "If you only check your credit history once a year, or only when applying for a major loan, it can take a great deal of time and energy to correct any problems you discover."
Kelly said that many consumers still do not regularly check their credit report, even though the information is available free-of-charge from all three major credit bureaus.
"Regularly reviewing your credit reports and closely checking your monthly financial statements are the easiest things that consumers can do to avoid unwanted surprises involving their credit," Kelly said.
Kelly recommended that consumers check their credit reports frequently.
"Every consumer is entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the three major credit bureaus," she said. "Because most information is shared between the credit bureaus, this effectively allows consumers to get three free reports every year."
Kelly suggested that consumers space their free credit reports out over the entire year, getting one report approximately every four months in order to minimize the time gap between reports and improve their chances of quickly catching problems.
"Check your credit history for signs of new accounts that you did not open or other unauthorized activity and immediately report anything suspicious," Kelly said. "Information about reporting fraudulent accounts is included with your credit report."
Kelly also suggested that consumers review their credit history for old accounts that may have been forgotten and consider closing accounts that have gone unused for an extended period of time. Contact information for the banks or credit card that issued those accounts is listed on the credit report.
Kelly explained that identity thieves will often process small charges on stolen credit cards, verifying that the account information is valid before making expensive purchases or selling that personal information. She urged consumers to closely review their monthly or online statements and immediately report any unauthorized charges. Instructions about disputing charges are included with the monthly billing statements.
When checking your credit history, Kelly suggested that consumers go directly to the website created by the credit bureaus for accessing free annual credit reports: www.annualcreditreport.com.
Kelly noted that numerous private companies use television and internet advertisements to offer 'free' credit reports, though many of those companies only provide free reports when consumers subscribe to expensive monthly 'credit monitoring' or 'credit protection' services. Carefully consider the cost and benefits of any of these services before subscribing.
Additionally, Kelly urged consumers to be wary of programs that claim to help make bad consumers information "disappear" or provide you with a new "credit identity."
"Offers that 'seem too good to be true' can often lead to scams or other problems," Kelly said. "The only information that can legally be removed from your credit history is information that is incorrect or outdated, which consumers can remove without the help of any credit repair service. The passage of time, along with a history of regular payments, is the only thing that will truly 'fix' bad credit."
Consumers can file complaints concerning credit issues by calling the Attorney General's Bureau of Consumer Protection at 1-800-441-2555 or filing an online consumer complaint.
Detailed information about credit issues is available in the "Your Money" section of the Attorney General's website.