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Hart: Guard your credit rating

As you start the New Year, you may want to make a resolution to begin checking your credit report regularly, if you are not already doing so, once you read about the trouble Bainbridge resident Doris Hart has experienced.

Mrs. Hart has always had a nearly perfect credit score and rating, so just imagine her surprise and embarrassment when she attempted to use her Visa credit card last March and the card was rejected. She said she could not imagine what the problem could be.

When she contacted her credit card company, she was told the company had closed her account and canceled the card due to her bankruptcy filing. Since Mrs. Hart had not filed for bankruptcy, she was at a complete loss to know what to do.

With the help of a friend who works in finance, she was able to learn that K. Todd Butler, a lawyer in Cairo, Ga., who specializes in bankruptcy filings, had transposed the Social Security numbers in a bankruptcy filing for another couple. Unfortunately, the transposed number matched that of Mrs. Hart.

Thus, began a nightmare that took nearly four months of research, multiple phone calls, reams of paper, written letters and hundreds of dollars in postage, etc., before the matter was resolved in late July.

When she found the attorney who had filed the paperwork, she said she contacted him and explained the situation, thinking it would be corrected. Although the attorney faxed a letter to her credit card company and the credit bureaus, and filed an amended bankruptcy petition, it didn’t clear up the problems with the reporting agencies, according to Hart.

New, improved consumer rules that took effect last summer now require agencies to act promptly, within 30 days in most cases, to verify information or remove it.

Mrs. Hart said she sent out at least 30 letters, each of them by certified mail. Numerous contacts were made to her bank, the credit card company, the bankruptcy court, all three credit reporting agencies, her personal CPA, her personal attorney, the Federal Trade Commission, the Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Court Trustee, their staff attorney, her homeowners insurance company, and even called Clark Howard of radio and television fame to explain what had happened.

She has told her story to Ron Burley, a consumer advocate with AARP, who has published it in the January-February 2011 issue of the AARP magazine.

She also contacted the Georgia State Bar Association consumer assistance program to determine if there were grounds to file a grievance. She was told that since it was not an intentional error no disciplinary action would be taken by them.

“I know he didn’t do this on purpose,” she said, “but he could have cleaned it up.”

The attorney agreed to pay Mrs. Hart $200, but enclosed the check in a letter stipulating that if she cashed the check she waived any future claims. She says she has not cashed the check and will not do so, as she has also been advised the problem could resurface for as long as 10 years from now.

Mrs. Hart is telling her story now to warn others what a costly, frustrating problem like this can be, and to tell them some steps they can take now to avoid having a similar experience. She recommends checking your credit report regularly. She admits she was not diligent in doing so and didn’t realize how a mistake can affect everything in your life, including your insurance rates.

Since this has happened, the Harts have taken out insurance through their homeowners insurance policy that protects them from financial losses that might occur from identity theft, including lost time from work as a result of time spent attempting to restore their credit.

They also have enrolled in a bank-sponsored credit monitoring program that will advise them if the bogus bankruptcy should ever resurface, or if any new problems arise with their credit report.

Other good advice is to guard your Social Security number. Mrs. Hart has put a fraud alert on her Social Security number through all three agencies and with the Social Security Administration. It lasts for 90 days and can be renewed.

A free credit report can be obtained annually from each credit reporting agency by contacting www.annualcreditreport.com, also from www.myfico.com. Credit scores are available for a fee from both.