This past summer, I veered off the path of my newly established financial independence, leaving me ashamed and confused. One Saturday morning, I looked at my phone and found three missed calls, three voice mails and one all-caps text message from my father: “CALL ME.” I figured someone had died. But no, my mother was unable to finance a new car because a previous co-signee — she assumed me — hadn’t been making car payments, thereby ruining her ability to qualify for the loan.
I swore to her that I had set up my car payments using an auto-debit service through my bank, but I couldn’t remember the last time I checked to make sure the withdrawals had gone through. More than that, I hadn’t even checked my own credit score, which would have notified me of any delinquent payments. Overcome by a crippling, “I’m a bad son” feeling, I raced over to my bank to have a serious talk with my bank while simultaneously calling up the lender with whom I’d financed my car.
Instead of discovering that I was behind on my payments, the lender confirmed I was up to date and, after poking around a bit, she quickly confirmed that my account had in fact been auto-debited regularly. Confused, I called back my parents.
After a few hours of digging through her credit report, my mother realized that the delinquent loan in her file was fraudulent. The loan had been made about a year before and regular payments were made for the first six months. After that, however, the payments stopped, my mother’s credit got dinged and she was prevented from financing her new car until she cleared things up.
All of this could have been prevented with a bit more financial mindfulness. Though it’s easy to go on financial autopilot, we all need to check our credit reports and scores, keep our sensitive information secure and stay on top of our bank accounts.
My mother still doesn’t know how her vital information got compromised, but there are several ways we all can prevent criminals from getting hold of the information necessary to make a fraudulent loan:
- Make sure to shred important documents if you’re going to throw them away. Especially sensitive are bank account statements, loan statements, medical documents, password lists, credit card solicitations and anything with your Social Security number on it.
- Be wary of where you shop online. If you’re ever entering your credit card, bank account or Social Security number, make sure you’re going through an encrypted site (look for “https” in the URL). If you suspect you might be dealing with a fishy site, do a little research online to see if any other Internet users have encountered a scam, or call the retailer or bank directly instead.
- As always, make sure you create complicated passwords, change them frequently and avoid using the same password twice. Here are five tips for creating hack-proof passwords.
So while I wasn’t at fault, I did realize I had gotten off track with my finances. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d checked my car payments and for all I knew, my credit history could have been pockmarked with missed payments and fraudulent activity. This was my wake-up call.
I now keep a closer eye on my money, not only to monitor for fraudulent activity, but simply to be aware of how much money I have, spend and borrow. In an increasingly electronic world, it’s become much easier to leave things on autopilot, but doesn’t mean you forsake the responsibility of keeping track of how your money is being spent.