HOUSTON – It was bad enough when crooks were trying to steal your credit card information, but now the KHOU 11 News I-Team has discovered they’re stealing the mother lode of credit information.
Even worse, the thieves are defrauding other consumers to do it.
Credit reports are the keys to your kingdom. They contain account numbers, past addresses, your Social Security number and other valuable, personal information.
It’s no wonder that stealing them is now a big business.
Cyber security expert Dan Clements with cloudeyez.com took us on a tour of secret websites most people will never see, online stores where thieves sell someone else’s financial information.
"These are American Express cards," explained Clements, pointing to a screen full of stolen credit card numbers for sale.
"These all happen to be Texas credit cards," he said, showing off another website.
But the most damaging display was yet to come: Real people’s credit reports sold for as little as $10 each.
"Credit profiles with 650 to 960 scores," Clements read from one site.
"This is financial terrorism," said Clements. "These guys are coming from overseas, into the United States and attacking consumers."
One way they’re doing it is by using unsuspecting consumers like Ann Rogers of League City.
"It’s just so easy to steal somebody’s identity," said Rogers.
One day, she opened her credit card bill and saw a $19.95 charge to the credit reporting agency Experian.
"It said credit report," recalled Rogers. "I thought, ‘I did not order a credit report.’"
That’s when she called Experian.
"They asked me if I had given my credit card number to an Amanda or a David," Rogers explained. "To ask if they could use my card number to open an account with them."
It was an account to access and buy other people’s credit reports.
"I was angry!" said Rogers.
Thieves got Pearland’s Dale Dlouhy, too. His credit card was also charged for credit reports. Again, Experian said his credit card paid for someone else’s report.
"The Internet’s like the Wild West," said Dlouhy. "There’s no rules."
The KHOU 11 News I-Team found consumers from New York to California to Alabama complaining about thieves using their credit cards to try and buy other people’s credit information from Experian.
"Credit reports are gold mines for scammers," explained Leah Napoliello of Houston’s Better Business Bureau. "You can basically assume a person’s identity, become the person and use that to open new lines of credit."
It’s no wonder Clements says this illegal business is booming.
"We see as many as 500 credit reports on one website," said Clements.
That can mean years of trouble for the consumers the credit reports really belong to.
"You are compromised for life," said Clements. "They can hold that information for a year, or five years. You just don’t know when another one of you is going to pop up in the world until you run into somebody who’s using your identity.
While Experian did refund both Dlouhy’s and Rogers’ credit card, she says the entire experience left her shaken.
"It’s really scary," she said, shaking her head. "Nothing is protected these days."
Experian declined to do an on-camera interview, but in a statement said it is aware of schemes to illegally access their reports. The company says it has taken steps to prevent it from happening, but would not detail what those steps are.
So how can you protect yourself? Experts suggest putting a credit freeze on your reports so if a thief does get your information, they will not be able to open new lines of credit in your name.
Credit freezes cost about $10 for each of the reporting agencies.