Last year, Equifax publicly announced over 143 million Americans were potentially impacted from the company’s data breach while the U.S. Government's Office of Personnel Management (OPM) had 21.5 million records stolen. Fast forward to April 2018, Panera reports 37 million records were breached while Facebook reported just a month earlier 87 million records stolen.
A recent study was performed by Javeline Strategy & Research reflecting almost $17 billion was stolen as a result of identify theft. This research reflected a 30% increase from last year with a continuous growing trend. Global consumers now face a more dangerous environment than ever with their data and personal information at risk. With more corporations and consumers having data stolen, there are measures in place to help deter you from becoming a victim.
Before we get into how you can freeze your credit and protect yourself, take a look at the chart below with data collected from Business Insider Intelligence and Statista. It reflects a growing trend with millions of consumers being impacted annually. Several of the corporations have very sound IT systems and firewalls which makes evidence that nobody is safe from hackers stealing your social security number, driver's license, or other sensitive personal information.
Note: 2017 and 2018 data still being finalized as of the writing of this post.
On September 21, 2018, Congressional leadership reacted to this ever-growing threat and passed a law to help consumers take action in protecting themselves and their families. This bill is known as the “Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act”. It allows consumers to freeze their credit for FREE to include having fraud alerts sent to consumers who request it for "One Year at No Cost".
This is beneficial because prior to this federal law being enacted, companies would charge a fee for this service as allowed by state laws. Now you can do it for FREE!
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I placed several links at the bottom of the page to get you started.
Several key highlights from this blog:
freezing your credit makes it difficult to open new accounts
a child's credit file can be frozen
consumers can request free credit alerts
credit bureau agencies must abide within one business day if requested by email or call
doesn't protect medical or tax fraud
check your credit report and score regularly
Some benefits of freezing your credit include making it more difficult and challenging for new credit accounts to be opened in your name. Also, it has pros in protecting your sensitive personal information, reducing your risk to having money stolen, and ability to freeze a child’s credit file.
So what is the “Year Long Fraud Alert”? This alert informs a “business that runs your credit that they should check with you before opening a new account” according to the FTC.
"...requires a consumer reporting agency to provide a consumer with free credit freezes and to notify a consumer of their availability..."
Title III (Sec. 301) Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act
The new law allows credit bureaus to increase the length of time in offering free credit alerts from 90 days to 365 days thereby, extending the protection to consumers. This is free as well and delivers several years of protection from fraud. Each of the three major credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion have constructed a webpage on their site making it easier to request fraud alerts and freezes to your credit. I have provided the links at the bottom of this blog page.
These agencies claim that the freeze doesn't take effect right away and limits your flexibility. It is important to know that the Federal Trade Commission and the law states "Contact all three of the nationwide credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. If you request a freeze online or by phone, the agency must place the freeze within one business day. If you request a lift of the freeze, the agency must lift it within one hour. If you make your request by mail, the agency must place or lift the freeze within three business days after it gets your request. You also can lift the freeze temporarily without a fee."
For military members, additional benefits are available but will also receive free credit monitoring from the credit agencies. It is estimated that $25 million are lost to imposter scams to our military members. Visit FTC.gov to discover more.
Having several benefits to protect your credit doesn’t mean you are free from all risks. With so many more consumers having their data stolen, your existing accounts are still facing huge risks. Sophisticated criminals create state-of-the-art emails pretending to be banks and agencies in order to have you confirm your data. Before you know it, your credit score is falling without your knowledge. Be sure to read 8 Ways to Boost Your Credit Score.
Recently, I was watching a YouTube video of a scammer posing to be an IRS agent. Obviously, with the heavy accent coupled with the language barrier, the callers saw through the scam. Well fast forward two weeks and I received the same phone call. Needless to say, I called the local authorities to report it but it opened my eyes to how serious identity theft is and how many scammers are in our world trying every tactic to obtain your information.
Steps for Actions to be Taken:
Contact your bank to set up alerts on existing accounts. This is usually free and the bank will usually offer free texting or email service so you are notified promptly should a suspicious transaction, transfer, or payment be made.
Set up multi-factor authentication when possible. This may be a pain at moments because you may need to provide additional information such as a unique code, but it will provide additional protection measures to your account.
Avoid calling phone numbers located in emails. Should you bank email you to call them, call the number on the back of your credit or debit card instead. Don’t fall victim to this scam.
When it comes to identity theft, consumers are led to think this happens with their finances only such as credit reports and credit cards, but theft for healthcare information is rapidly increasing. It is important to note that a credit freeze doesn’t provide protection against medical and employee theft.
Medical identity theft usually consists of one’s name, social security number, or Medicare number being taken. The impacts of such a scenario are scammers using your personal information to submit fake billings to Medicare or buy pharmaceuticals in which you may get hit by debt collectors or negative impacts on your credit report since you will have no knowledge of this occurring.
It is also dangerous because someone can use your information to obtain an insurance plan.
According to Healthcare IT News, 75,000 patients had their data stolen from Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) which was stored within the Affordable Care Act Portal. This occurred just two weeks prior to the opening enrollment period.
On August 14, 2018, 417,000 Augusta University patient records were reporting "breached" as this Georgia-based health system was a target by phishing attacks.
Since freezing your credit won't protect from such medical information thefts, there are some actions you can implement to reduce your risk. You should never post anything online about health or medical conditions. Avoid storing medical bills, receipts, treatment or pharmaceutical information on your phone or computer. If these are items that can not be avoided, then ensure this data is password-protected. You can find more information on measures to prevent medical theft from HealthIT.gov.
Another common type of fraud is tax identity theft. This one is straightforward as your social security number is stolen to file a tax return in hopes of receiving a monetary return. The best way to reduce your exposure to such a case is to file as early as possible. By delaying your return, you increase your chances of becoming a victim as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) claims “thousands of people have lost millions of dollars and their personal information to tax scams”.
The IRS never calls your phone or emails you. If they need to contact you, you will receive notification by official mail. On their website, they list several types of Tax Fraud Alerts and Scams.
Above you read about twelve tips to know to freeze your credit. In summary, these tips are:
1. It is Free to Freeze your credit
2. Freezing Credit Protects New Accounts Being Opened
3. Freezing Credit Helps Protect Sensitive Information
4. Protect Your Child's Credit File
5. Inquire About Free Year-long Credit Alert
6. Call all Three Major Credit Bureaus
7. Credit Agencies have 1 Business Day (phone/email)/3 Business Days (mail)
8. Military Members have added Benefits
9. Contact your bank for Credit Alerts/Freezes
10. Establish Multi-Factor Authentications to Accounts
11. Protect your Medical Information (not protected with credit freezes)
12. Secure your Tax Data (not protected with credit freezes)
13. Protect your Driver's License & Social Security Number
14. Review Credit Reports Often
If you haven't checked your latest credit report or credit score, I recommend getting your Free Annual Credit Report (annualcreditreport.com) and a Free Credit Score from Credit Karma (creditkarma.com). We wrote a blog on Why You Should Check Your Credit Score outling several key reasons you MUST review and check it for errors.
If your score hasn't been impacted by hackers or stolen data but needs to increase, then I recommend you read "How to Improve the 3-Digit Number That Shapes Your Financial Future" by Liz Pulliam Weston. She delivers 240-pages full of information relating to credit score calculation to avoiding becoming a tax fraud victim!
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