Identity thieves may be able to hijack your phone and utility accounts, thanks to a little-known credit reporting database run by Equifax.
The National Consumer Telecom and Utilities Exchange is a non-profit "member" association that warehouses consumer payment data related to utility bills – cable, electric, gas, water and phone. It is run by Atlanta-based Equifax, the same company that had a record-breaking 143 million-file data breach last year.
However, the NCTUE is a separate organization from the credit bureau, according to an Equifax spokeswoman. Thus, freezing your credit file at Equifax does not freeze your NCTUE file.
That has left a gaping hole in the walls that many consumers have attempted to place around their financial lives in the wake of nearly incessant data breaches that expose individuals to identity theft.
Just ask Carrie Kerskie, director of the Identity Fraud Institute at Hodges University in Naples, Florida.
"People have come to us because crooks are opening utility accounts in their names even though they had placed credit freezes on their files with all the major credit bureaus," Kerskie says. Solving the mystery of these fraudulently opened accounts is what caused Kerskie to discover the NCTUE database, she adds.
While any type of utility account could be open to fraud as the result of this database, the biggest risk is with phone bills, she says. That's because crooks can quickly monetize the crime by opening a phone account to nab a "free" – actually financed – cell phone, which can be quickly resold. The crook pockets the cash and walks away, while the victim whose information was purloined, finds his or her credit damaged in a report that the victim may not have known even existed.
Kerskie, a private investigator by trade, suggests that anyone whose personal data has been exposed in a breach request a copy of their NCTUE file, as well as the files from the big three credit reporting agencies, and potentially place a freeze on all of these files. She also suggests getting a report and freezing the file held by Innovis, a smaller but rapidly growing credit-reporting agency.
The NCTUE database includes information from 95 member companies. It can only be accessed by these members and "certain other customers" such as insurance companies and financial institutions, according to an Equifax spokeswoman.
Consumers can call (866) 349-5185 to request a copy of their NCTUE credit report. (You will need to provide a Social Security number and the number of your street address.) If you wish to place a freeze on your report, call (866) 349-5355.
The only consumers who might not want to freeze their reports are those who are planning to move and, thus, may need to open new utility accounts, or those who plan to apply for credit in the next several months, Kerskie says. In those cases, a credit freeze might cause more inconvenience than it's worth. However, a fraud alert, that discourages issuing instant credit in your name, is always advisable in today's world, where private consumer data is cheap and readily available on the dark web.
But even freezing your file with all five of these bureaus won't lock down your credit completely. Unbeknownst to most consumers, there are dozens of databases that collect "specialty" payment information, such as how promptly you pay your rent; how frequently you make insurance claims; and your medical payment history. Indeed, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau publishes a 36-page listing of "specialty consumer reporting companies."
Each collects slightly different data and may or may not have a file on any individual consumer. However, all are required to provide a free copy of your credit report once annually, if you know to request it and if the organization has a file on you.
Given the wealth of companies in this game – and the fact that there are few barriers to entry – shutting down your personal information may feel like a game of Whack-A-Mole. Still, Kerskie says it's worthwhile to freeze the NCTUE database, since it contains copious data and may provide a key to crooks wanting to get a cell phone and leave you with the bill.