Protecting Your Identity

It shouldn’t be news to you at this point that Equifax, one of the three largest credit reporting agencies in the country, was recently hacked. The hackers were able to gain access to consumers’ names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, addresses and, in some cases, more. That information is extremely powerful in a digital world, and the number of consumers affected totals 143 million.

Now, we live in a world of big numbers—I think of this every time I see the national debt with more commas than I knew existed—so I want to take this moment to put the 143 million number in perspective. That number equals about half of all American adults.

Think about that for a moment.

That perspective makes it a bit scarier, doesn’t it? You would think that dealing with this problem would be a priority for American consumers right now, but a survey conducted by the SSRS, a survey and market research firm, tells us a different story. It found that two-thirds of American consumers are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about their information possibly being stolen in the breach. That number seems a bit more reasonable. But it also found that only 19 percent of respondents had done anything about those concerns. That’s the number, folks, that surprises me.

I would like to assume that the other 81 percent simply does not know what they can do to help protect themselves, rather than simply not caring. So, I’d like to give you, Cutter Family Finance Readers, some tips on what you can do to find out whether your information was compromised and to limit the damage moving forward.

The Federal Trade Commission offered the following valuable advice:

-Visit Equifax’s website, www.equifaxsecurity2017.com.
-Find out if your information was exposed. Click on the “Am I Impacted” tab and enter your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number. Your Social Security number is sensitive information, so make sure you’re on a secure computer and an encrypted network connection any time you enter it. The site will tell you if you’ve been affected by this breach.
-Whether or not your information was exposed, US consumers can get a year of free credit monitoring and other services. The site will give you a link to enroll in that monitoring service. You have until November 21, 2017, to enroll.

The truth is this data breach that has stolen recent headlines is shining a very bright light on an everyday problem. And even if you escaped having your information stolen in this case, that does not mean that you are not at risk for identity theft. The tips moving forward are the same whether your information was exposed or not. So, let’s talk about some general rules of thumb that should help you out.

Check your credit reports occasionally for activity that you don’t recognize. We often don’t ask for a credit report until we are looking to get a loan or make a major purchase, usually to check our credit rating to get a good idea if we will be approved. But by running a credit report, you can also see if there have been any accounts opened or activity that should not be associated with your Social Security number. Any such account openings or activity is a red flag that your personal information has been stolen. The problem is that waiting to find an issue only when you are about to apply for credit can make it impossible to get that loan or make that purchase. There are a few free services available to run a credit report for you throughout the year.

If you know that your credit and accounts have been compromised, you should consider a credit freeze. A credit freeze will help prevent someone from opening a new account with your information in your name. It doesn’t make it impossible, just more difficult. Additionally, a credit freeze can only help prevent the opening of fraudulent accounts; it cannot help protect your existing accounts. Please remember, freezing your credit reports will keep you from opening new accounts as well.

You should also review your bank and credit card statements each month for charges that you do not recognize. The Equifax breach included about 209,000 stolen credit card numbers, but even if you weren’t one of those unlucky people, credit and debit card numbers are always at risk. Take the time to review each line of your statements and confirm that you were responsible for each purchase and transfer reported.

Lastly, one that I always recommend is to make sure that you file your tax return early. The longer you wait, the greater the chance that someone who stole your information will apply for a refund using your information before you do. And get this, another sneaky way an identity thief can use your stolen information is by providing that information when applying for a job and asking for no withholding—and then the income is reported to you on a W-2 or a 1099. Folks, this is crazy, right? Unfortunately, fraudulent tax returns are hard to identify and are processed on a first-come, first-served basis. The sooner you file your taxes, the more likely you are to win that race.

If you were not affected by this most recent data breach, don’t simply sit back and consider yourself lucky. It’s always less painful to learn from other people’s mistakes than it is to learn from your own. As one of my favorite founding fathers, Ben Franklin, once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”