How Secure is Your Personal Data?

Unless you’re boycotting news coverage, you’ve heard about a data breach nearly every day recently. Between the US Office of Personnel Management to Anthem Insurance to Target, nearly everyone’s personal information is at risk. Cybersecurity expert Brian Krebs says, “I’m here to tell you that if you’re an American, your basic personal data is already for sale.”

So how can you keep from being a victim? Here are some suggestions:

Monitor your credit cards. Pay attention to charges made to your credit cards and question any unknown transactions. Don’t wait until you receive your monthly statement, but review your account frequently online.

Review your credit report at least three times a year. There are three national credit reporting agencies – Experian (888.397.3742), Equifax (800.525.6285), and TransUnion (800.680.7289). Each one is required to provide consumers with a free report once each year, so set yourself a calendar reminder to run a report from a different agency every four months. While they are similar, each agency may have different information, so it’s a good idea to check each one. You can order your report online through annualcreditreport.com, which is the only authorized website for free credit reports; or call 877.322.8228. You’ll need to provide your name, address, social security number, and date of birth.

(And by the way – there’s a fourth credit agency called called Innovis (800.540.2505). They have many of the same features as the Big Three – credit reports, fraud alerts, and credit freezes. However, they are not required to provide you with a free credit report each year, though some states may require no fee. Innovis carries different information than the other three, so it might be worthwhile to check out the information they hold about you.)

Use a credit monitoring service. If you’ve been identified as being part of a data breach, you may have been offered free credit monitoring services for a year or two. While this service will alert you when someone opens or attempts to open a line of credit in your name, it does not necessarily block that activity. Furthermore, any credit applications can negatively affect your credit score, which in turn affects the rate you pay for mortgages, loans, credit cards and insurance. So even if credit monitoring services can let you know when there’s fraudulent activity, your credit score may be adversely affected by criminals trying to use your identity, even if they don’t succeed.

Also, credit monitoring services don’t monitor bank accounts or prevent tax fraud and other types of identity theft such as forging your driver’s license or passport. So just be aware of the limitations.

Institute Free Fraud Alerts. Fraud alerts can be added to your credit report to inform creditors that you may be a victim of fraud. It requires creditors to take extra steps to verify your identity prior to establishing any new credit in your name or changing your credit limits. The time frame for the fraud alert can vary from 90 days to 7 years. To institute a fraud alert, contact one of the three national credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion or Equifax), who will then notify the other two to place the alert.

Put a credit freeze on your file. This will not stop misuse of your existing accounts or other types of identity theft, but would prevent crooks from checking your credit file or trying to open a line of credit in your name. You as the legitimate consumer can temporarily lift the freeze using a PIN so that legitimate access to  your credit file can be processed. The rules about credit freezes differ by state and reporting agency, and some states charge a fee for placing or removing a credit freeze.

There are pros and cons to instituting a credit freeze, so here are some things to consider:

  • Putting a credit freeze on your file does not affect your credit score.
  • You can still get a copy of your free annual credit report, open a new account, apply for a job, buy insurance, or engage in other transactions that require your credit report, but in order for a business, lender or employer to be able to review your report, you must ask the credit agency to lift the freeze, either temporarily or permanently. If you want to reinstitute the freeze after “thawing” it, you may incur a new fee.
  • The cost to place and lift a freeze and how long the freeze lasts depends on state law. Fees range from $0 to $15 per bureau, meaning it can cost up to $45 to place a freeze at all three credit bureaus. However, if you believe you have been the victim of identity theft, it’s possible this fee may be waived if you can supply a police report and affidavit. Check with your state’s attorney general’s office for your state’s fees.
  • You will need to place a credit freeze with each of the three nationwide credit reporting companies. This may be able to be done online or may require contact by phone or in writing (see contact information above). Once you complete the application process, each bureau will provide a personal identification number (PIN) that you can use to unfreeze your credit file in the event you need to apply for new lines of credit sometime in the future.
  • Keep track of the dates you instituted the freeze, when the freeze might automatically expire, and copies of any correspondence.

Opt out of unsolicited credit card offers. Go to www.optoutprescreen.com or call 888.5OPT-OUT (888.567.8688) to remove your name, address and personal identifiers from lists supplied by credit reporting agencies. You can opt out of receiving these offers for 5 years or permanently, but to opt out permanently you must do so in writing and send it by snail mail.

Whether we like it or not, we’re all at risk for identity theft. It makes sense to take all the reasonable steps we can to mitigate that risk. If you’d like more information, check out these resources: