In today’s digital age, it’s a near certainty that you or someone you know has been impacted by a data breach. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, 2018 was the sort of watershed year no one gets excited about: Nearly 450 million consumer records were compromised in data breaches, a 126 percent increase over the previous year.
However, there are a number of things we as consumers can do to protect ourselves. For example, a new federal law gives consumers the ability to place a credit freeze on their credit file for free. Someone looking to steal your identity to commit financial fraud needs access to your credit file, and a freeze effectively locks this down, preventing its misuse. This is a highly effective way to protect yourself from thieves looking to open new credit accounts in your name.
While effective once in place, the process to freeze and unfreeze is somewhat cumbersome, requiring an individual to contact each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies (CRAs) – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – to establish accounts and receive personal identification numbers (PINs).
It is also important for consumers considering a credit freeze to remember that a freeze not only prevents misuse of your credit file, it also prevents legitimate access to it as well. For example, if you have frozen your credit file with each of the three CRAs and you find yourself with an urgent need for access — to perform a credit check when renting an apartment, or opening a credit line to replace a broken appliance or get a car loan, as examples — and you haven’t unfrozen your files, odds are you won’t be able to complete those transactions until you’ve contacted the CRAs, provided your PINs (because who doesn’t love trying to remember three additional codes), and waited one-to-three days for the freeze to be lifted.
Another option to consider if you think you might have had your information stolen in a data breach is to place a fraud alert on your credit file. This option does not prevent access, but instead signals to a potential creditor that it must take additional steps to verify your identity before extending credit. Fraud alerts are also free and are easier to put in place (contacting a single CRA will result in a fraud alert placed on your file at all three of them), but need to be renewed after a period of time.
The Fairfax County Consumer Affairs Branch frequently hosts educational events on these topics and others related to your financial health. To learn more about these great resources, visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/fairfaxcountyconsumer and their web site at https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/cableconsumer/csd/consumer.
As consumers, many of us have become desensitized to the almost daily reports of major data breaches, accepting as inevitable the likelihood that our sensitive financial information is — or is going to be — in the hands of fraudsters. But a bit of proactive vigilance to assess your needs and take advantage of tools like freezes and fraud alerts can go a long way to keeping your identity — and bank accounts — secure.
The writer, who resides in Mount Vernon, serves on the Fairfax County Consumer Protection Commission.