More than 17 million Americans were victims of identity theft last year, according to the Department of Justice, and reports of breaches have become so common that most of us just tune out the news. But that would be a mistake, because even if your bank issues you a new credit card, the Pandora’s box that a breach can open could impact you for years to come.
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Hackers will sell your personal information on the dark web and the smartest thieves will then put together bits of information about your life to devise a profile they can use to unlock security questions and get access to all kinds personal information from your Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) page “likes” to your private bank accounts.
The sad truth is that it is up to consumers to protect their financial identity and set up road blocks for thieves. One of the most effective ways to do that, and a must first-step for people who have actually had their information compromised, is a credit freeze, meaning a freeze on your credit information with the three data companies, Equifax (NYSE:EFX), Experian and Transunion (NYSE:TRU). A freeze shuts off access to your credit history and unlike a fraud alert, slams the door on new account fraud. You’ll pay for the privilege, $2 to $12 per freeze per bureau unless you have been a victim of identity theft, in which case it’s free.
Another important step is to monitor your online banking and credit card accounts. It used to be enough to scan the monthly statement, but these days a once a week check on your online statements is a good preventative, plus you’ll be more focused on nuisance charges that you might have missed. Most banks will allow you to set up free fraud alerts. Unauthorized wire transfers and international charges on your credit cards are the big red flags here. Changing your passwords on websites you log into regularly is a good idea, but so is changing the passwords and even email addresses associated with those accounts.
Buy a shredder – and use it. A lot of identity theft is still old school, consisting of dumpster diving in garbage and stealing mail. Shredding your bank and brokerage statements are a first step, but even bills can provide critical info that can help a thief.
Finally, it would be great if all new technology, like chips on credit cards, could guarantee the end of identity theft, but that’s not likely. Identity thieves are just too savvy and resourceful. Your best defense is taking precautions on your own to prevent theft and becoming your own security guard for your financial life.