When more than 145 million people had some form of personal information exposed after a major credit reporting agency in the U.S. was hacked, Americans were scrambling to secure their sensitive information.
Equifax, which collects personal data – like Social Security numbers, birth dates, credit card numbers and addresses – announced recently that an unidentified hacker group gained access to a large portion of its data. That again brought up the question of how people can protect themselves from identify theft.
Equifax is one of the three largest credit reporting agencies in the country; the other two are Experian and TransUnion. With millions of people being affected by the latest breach, some might not want to trust the agencies, but there aren’t really any options.
“We have no choice,” said Cora Lathrop, mortgage loan officer at Cherokee Nation. “I don’t think new credit reporting agencies are going to pop up. It’s just evolved through the years to these three majors ones, and I don’t think there’s anything we as consumers can do about that, because wherever we have credit, it’s going to report to those major credit reporting agencies, whether you pay it or not.”
For those who are at risk of having their financial identities stolen, a few initiatives can be taken to help prevent fraud.
Lauren Wright, assistant professor of criminal justice at Northeastern State University, said a credit freeze might be the best move.
“The industry is not super-excited about that, but that’s something a lot of people are doing now,” said Wright. ” Basically what it is, you pay $10 and they freeze your credit report for however long you want it to be frozen, so no one can access your credit report. If someone was trying to steal your information, all of the big things they would do with it, they can’t do, because your credit is frozen.”
Wright said it would probably be best to call each of the three credit agencies to freeze assets. A downside to freezing one’s credit, though, is that the person would have to unfreeze it if he or she wanted to make a purchase.
Consumers can also pay for a credit monitoring service.
“Anytime there’s any sort of activity on your account, it alerts you,” said Wright.
Equifax has started offering free credit monitoring for a year, and while that will keep people up to date on activity in their accounts for now, in a year, those customers might not be able to afford credit monitoring.
“One of the big problems is that we don’t know who has this information, where it’s going and what they’re doing with it; if it’s ever going to be used at all or if it’s going to be used 20-30 years down the line,” said Wright. “So I have this year of credit monitoring for free, because my stuff was hacked, but what if it’s not a year? What if they wait 20 years to try and steal my information?”
Instead of paying for a credit monitoring service, people can also carefully pay attention to their accounts. Oftentimes, identity thieves will start by taking out small amounts of money from accounts. Once they realize the person hasn’t acknowledged small charges here and there, they’ll begin making larger transactions.
“It’s a matter of being smart and conscious about what you’re doing,” said Lathrop. “These people who steal your identity are very smart, or else they wouldn’t know how to do that. So as smart as we can be, there’s going to be somebody who comes up with a new idea to try and trap us.”
There are other ways to have financial identities stolen, besides the massive hacking breach like the one on Equifax. Online activity can often leave users susceptible to scammers and frauds.
“What I’ve have found, especially with elderly, when they’re playing on the computer, they’ll click on all these links, not knowing that it’s a bogus link that will attach malware,” said Lathrop. “Then you have young people who are on social media all the time. They’re susceptible because everything they know and own is in that phone. If it gets hacked, all of their identification is gone.”
Entering personal information like credit card numbers or Social Security numbers into questionable sites can leave folks at risk of identity theft. Consumers should also be leery of people who call and claim to be with the IRS.
“We have a lot of people who get scam phone calls claiming to be the IRS, saying ‘you owe us money,'” said Wright. “I get that call all the time. The IRS is never going to call you. They’re always going to send you a letter in the mail.”
One of the best methods of protection is education. Lathrop recommends visiting www.consumer.ftc.gov for more information about identity theft and how to protect personal information.