After the Equifax Breach, How Do You Protect Yourself From Identity Theft?
I want to take this space to explain a little more about the various steps one can take to guard against theft of your money or identity, because it’s been in the news so much lately, and I know it can all be confusing.
First, what are we afraid of here? Three things:
- A thief uses your existing credit card numbers to buy things.
- Someone impersonates you and opens up new credit accounts or takes out loans in your name.
- Someone uses your personal information to file a tax return and claim a refund.
In some ways, straightforward credit card fraud is the least frightening. That’s because the credit card companies have gotten very good at flagging charges that are out of the ordinary in any way, and those charges can be reversed when you respond quickly. When I bought gas on a recent trip to New Jersey, the credit card company wanted to make sure it was really me, because I lived in Brooklyn and don’t own a car. It’s also important to look at your own statements each month for charges you don’t recognize, even tiny ones.
The second possibility is what people call identity theft. How do you stop people from opening up new accounts in your name?
You may have seen different terms floating around: credit freeze, credit lock, fraud alert and credit monitoring. They are all a little different, and they can all cost money.
In order from least to most extreme and/or effective, here is how they break down:
- Credit monitoring is offered by many third-party companies, for a monthly fee. But the problem is that it is passive and retroactive, not proactive.
- A “fraud alert” is free. With this form of protection, when anyone tries to open a new credit account in your name, add a new card to an existing account or raise your credit limit, the lender is supposed to verify that it’s you, for example, by calling you on the phone number you gave. You can call any of the three credit reporting agencies to place a fraud alert for 90 days. After that it is renewable. More information from the Federal Trade Commission: go.madison.com/ftcfraudalert.
- A credit freeze is deeper than a fraud alert. With a credit freeze, no third party can access your credit report until the freeze is lifted. Even if you want to get a mortgage or an auto loan, you have to call and get it lifted, which takes around three business days.
In the wake of their breach that exposed critical information on 143 million Americans — and after a public outcry — Equifax has announced that it will offer a credit freeze free of charge for all consumers until Nov. 21.
But you still may have to pay a small fee to put a freeze on your files with the other two major bureaus, Experian and TransUnion. And you need to order a freeze with all three of them to really be safe.
One silver lining of this situation is that more consumers may decide to initiate credit freezes, as many consumer groups recommend.
But there is one more step to take to guard against identity theft. Remember what I said about taxes? Sometimes identity thieves file tax returns using your Social Security number and claim fraudulent refunds. The IRS has been stepping up enforcement and safeguards against this crime.
One recommendation for this year is to file early, and in the meantime, pay attention to any mail from the IRS. Remember that they will never demand information from you over the phone.
The most basic way to prevent identity theft is to shred everything! With offices in Toledo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Columbus and Louisville, Allshred Services has paper shredding trucks running all throughout the Midwest. Give us a call today at 800-227-4733 or fill out our online form for a free document shredding quote.