Editor's note: This page has been updated after news of a security breach at Equifax, one of the nation's largest credit rating services, impacting millions of Americans.
Not long ago I wrote on the very real dangers of identity theft and ways to avoid it. Though there are measures one can take to protect themselves, oftentimes security breeches are unavoidable — like when your information is held by an outside entity that's compromised. But if your information falls into the wrong hands there are steps you can take to mitigate the problem. The most critical part is to be aware it's happening.
Take advantage of credit monitoring — you may already have a free service through your employer — or get your free credit report available online at www.annualcreditreport.com (a free, accredited site). Examine your report often, I do weekly, even if you are not notified of a breach or irregular activity you can often file a dispute of something that appears incorrect on your credit file. An example would be if an invalid credit collections agency shows up, say, from a fraudulent purchase or account, and damages your credit rating. Your credit rating plays and important roll in your ability to get quality loans, mortgages, etc, and can certainly suffer if not monitored closely.
If you notice erroneous entries on your credit report, see worrying account activity or know your identity has been compromised, it's important to file a fraud alert, or ask to freeze your credit. (Terminology varies between credit companies as well as what you're able to report and how long you want your credit inaccessible.) Notify Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion, the three major credit monitoring companies, if you fall victim to fraud. An initial alert will last about 90 days and you may renew it for 90 days before it expires. Basically, you have two options on locking your credit file such as a credit freeze that keeps everyone out of your files, typically for seven years — you'll have to remove the freeze if someone needs access to your credit. A basic temporary alert allows companies can do a credit check with your help/approval.
Typically, a bank account and/or a credit card that's been opened under your name indicates that your Social Security number is being used by someone other than you. First some bad news: if your social security number has been stolen there's not much that can be done to reclaim it. You can get a new Social Security number but it'll still be loosely tied to your old number. A shrewd thief can track your new number down and take it again. You can still go about getting a new number via the IRS, but be prepared for a slow process.
Needless to say, having you identity stolen is nothing short of a nightmare, and what you don't know will hurt you. Diligent monitoring of your credit reports and knowing when to freeze your accounts will go a long way in helping you mitigate the situation.
There are services that claim to be able to fix your problems, supposedly, like CSID, Triple Alert, and ID Experts. While each manages monitoring your credit files and provide alerts to changes and additions just fine, the ability to request and make fixes, and customer service when looking to do so leaves much to be desired. If/when you're aware of a problem, you'll need to take the follow up process upon yourself until a better service comes along.
Credit monitoring and account freezes won't keep your identity safe if you've been compromised online, but it will make things more tedious for credit thieves. Good luck and keep your credit information close to your heart.
UPDATE: Equifax, one of the three main credit rating and protection providing companies has suffered a major hack. As many as half of all the population of the United State will be affected.
First, find out if you're information has been compromised here. If so, then sign up for their free monitoring included on that page and follow the reports as often as possible — hackers wait for people to become complacent.
Brian Koch is an avid techie who's worked in the tech field for dozens of years with Compaq/HP, his own pc business Techpertise, outdoor photography, and more. He has lived with his wife Stacy in Colorado for over 16 years. E-mail questions, comments, suggestions to Brian: email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @Techpertise.