In the old days you knew when you were being robbed. The thief was looking you in the eye when he said, “Stick ‘em up!” Today digital thieves can steal your identity and you never know it until you accidentally discover credit cards in your name you didn’t apply for, loans you didn’t take out, or a severely damaged credit score that threatens your financial life.
You may think it will never happen to you, but the odds are not in your favor. It’s estimated that 41 million Americans have had their identity stolen, and there are three new victims of identity theft every second.
There’s a huge market for stolen identities on the dark web. That’s where thieves buy and sell everything from credit card numbers and medical records to Social Security numbers and account login information.
Cyber Security expert Jesse Davis at Recon Secure Computing says even if your identity hasn’t been used, your information is likely out there because of breaches at some of the largest corporations and retailers. The breach at Equifax, one of the three major credit reporting agencies, exposed 147 million of its customers to identity theft. The Capital One Financial Corp. breach exposed 100 million records.
But breaches aren’t isolated to big companies. Your information can be snatched from your doctor’s office, your kids’ school, or any number of small businesses who don’t have the inclination or resources to properly protect confidential information.
With the right information, including your Social Security number, an identity thief can take over your bank or retirement accounts. They can visit doctors and obtain medical care in your name which can make changes to your medical records that can later affect your treatment. With your full name, date of birth, and Social Security number, a thief can even file a fraudulent tax return and claim a tax refund in your name, even if you don’t have a refund coming. The results can be devastating and cost you untold amounts of time and money to repair.
So, how do you protect yourself? Start by checking your credit. See if there’s anything on your report that doesn’t belong there. The three major reporting agencies are Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. You are entitled to one free credit report from each agency every 12 months. If you find accounts you didn’t open, contact the fraud unit at each of the reporting agencies.
Next, consider freezing your credit records. A credit freeze is designed to prevent credit, loans and services from being approved in your name without your knowledge or consent, by preventing potential lenders from accessing your credit file.
Security freezes have to be initiated and managed at each of the three credit reporting agencies. You are required to set up a Personal Identification Number (PIN). Some agencies let you create your own PIN. Others create a PIN for you. Your PIN code will be different at each reporting agency. If you’re uncomfortable freezing your record and creating a PIN on line, the freeze process can also be done by mailing the appropriate forms to the reporting agencies. Once set up, the credit bureaus won’t provide information to lenders unless you unfreeze your information.
What happens if you need your credit checked as in the case of a car loan, home loan, or a credit card you’re applying for? You have to unfreeze your credit report. It can be done online. It requires the PIN code you set up at the time of the original freeze and you have to unfreeze at all three. The business considering your credit worthiness may not check all three, so you may want to unfreeze only the agencies the lender will check. Then refreeze your credit report as soon as the check is done. Keep in mind that you have to lift the freeze ahead of time before the lender can access your report. Freezing and unfreezing is free.
You’ve spent a long time building a great credit record. Do everything you can to preserve it.