There are many reasons why a credit freeze is the best tool that people worried about identity theft can use to protect themselves.
This has never been more important than in the case of as many as 35,000 people in the area who could be victimized because a city of Akron website database containing names, addresses, Social Security numbers and other information was made public for about two days in a criminal hacking incident.
So far, no one is known to have had their information used to open false accounts and run up charges. It could be awhile before anyone discovers that their information is being illegally used.
One reaction to personal data being made public is that a credit freeze is overkill.
I say it’s the right thing to do. It’s about being responsible and taking caution to protect your accounts. Remember, a Social Security number alone is a key element in the ability of an ID thief to do serious damage to an innocent person.
To execute a credit freeze, it must be ordered at all three of the national bureaus for individuals and couples, where applicable.
According to state law, credit freezes cost $5 per bureau and per person. They also cost $5 to lift or “thaw” the freeze when you need credit. Victims of ID theft can get the freeze and later lift or “thaw” it for free with the filing of a copy of a police report.
As of my deadline on Thursday, Akron city officials were working on details to get freezes for free/reimbursed for people who placed the freeze last week before the city sent letters to the victims. The city said it was unable to handle 35,000 police reports, so one police report was made with the city as the victim. The hope is that report will suffice for the free freeze.
As soon as that information becomes available, the Beacon Journal will publish it. The details also will be published online at www.ohio.com/news.
I have used the credit freeze option before. The first benefit it provides is peace of mind when you know data has been breached.
I have placed credit freezes for myself and my husband. We have never been victims of ID theft, but our data has been breached several times in massive leaks. For us, it was a proactive move since we weren’t in need of new credit.
Has it caused some “annoyances” if I can even call them that? Sure. Once when we were going to buy a large-screen TV, I forgot that I couldn’t apply for the store’s credit card to get 10 percent off until I temporarily lifted or “thawed” my credit. So I came back later to buy the TV.
When we were looking for a new car a few years ago, I tried to ask the car dealers which credit bureau they would be checking so I wouldn’t have to pay to lift my freezes at all three.
Sometimes it doesn’t work where I can only lift the freeze at one bureau and I have to pay for all three, or I opt not to make a purchase where someone needs to pull information on my credit, but that’s OK. I also know that if our information gets breached again, there’s a freeze on any new credit.
I have stronger feelings about this than Eva Casey Velasquez, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization. She does recommend that people in the Akron situation put a freeze on.
Velasquez’s organization recommends freezes for anyone who has been an ID theft victim and says anyone receiving notices of a breach should strongly consider them, but do so knowing there is a difference between being the victim of a data breach and being a victim of ID theft.
She said her agency’s phone lines have been inundated with calls from Akron victims.
According to a recent industry survey by Javelin Strategy, one in four victims of data breach notifications became victims of identity theft. The study found that consumers who had their Social Security numbers compromised in a data breach were five times more likely to be a fraud victim than an average consumer.
Freezing credit, Velasquez said, does not affect a person’s current credit or ability to use a credit line or get access to their own credit reports.
The freeze’s benefit is preventing anyone from opening new credit.
One issue involving a freeze is whether it could negatively affect someone in the middle of a job search when potential employers are checking a candidate’s credit record.
Velasquez said she’d take a proactive approach and place the credit freeze, but also keep a copy of the letter from the city about the hack. She suggests putting in a cover letter to potential employers the reason why the credit reports are frozen and that the freeze could be lifted, if they would prefer.
“It’s really such a personal decision. Am I more concerned about identity theft or unemployment? I’m not going to tell you which has to be the first priority,” she said.
Another issue concerns the fact that one of the files in the Akron hack contained some credit card information and expiration dates, bank names and account numbers. This file was not as clear cut as the others, where people’s names and account numbers were listed in the same line. There were some names with credit card numbers that were not full (just the last digits) and expiration dates and lines with bank names and account numbers didn’t seem to have names associated.
With all of that potential for trouble, Velasquez is encouraging the city to contact the banks and have them contact those customers.
So it is not clear whether people need to change their credit card numbers and bank account numbers. Velasquez said if you used a credit card or bank account to pay Akron city taxes electronically, you might want to consider changing your bank account.
Again, it’s a personal decision. A few years ago when my bank routing number and my account number and my husband’s Social Security number were exposed in an Akron Children’s hospital breach, we closed our bank account and opened a new one. Perhaps it was being overly cautious. And it was aggravating, since I have a lot of payments automatically taken out of my bank account. But for me, the peace of mind factor was important.
Here are some resources on credit freezes:
• The Identity Theft Resource Center offers free victim assistance at 888-400-5530 or online at www.idtheftcenter.org.
• The Ohio Attorney General’s Consumer Identity Theft Unit is available. The office has a self-help assistance guide. A police report must be filed. The city’s police report number is 13-011564 and can be found at www.akronohio.gov. Call 800-282-0515 or go online to www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov.
• It will take time to clean up your credit accounts, possibly even years. But ID theft victims typically are not financially responsible for the charges.
• A credit freeze does not affect your current credit or your ability to use your credit cards. Here is contact information for the three credit bureaus:
— Equifax: 800-685-1111 (Option 3), Equifax Security Freeze, P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, GA 30348 or www.equifax.com
— Experian: 888-EXPERIAN (888-397-3742), Experian Security Freeze, P.O. Box 9554, Allen TX 75013 or www.experian.com
— TransUnion: 888-909-8872, TransUnion, Fraud Victim Assistance Department, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834 or www.transunion.com/securityfreeze
It is important for you to remember your PIN codes that you will establish when you place the freeze in order to “thaw” your report. It’s also important to know that it could take up to three days to “thaw” your credit.
Since details were still being worked out between Akron and the bureaus on freezes for free or reimbursements, I would advise paying for freezes now and working on reimbursements later.
For non-ID theft victims, it costs $5 per bureau per person to place the freeze and to either temporarily (you can set the parameters) or permanently lift the freeze when you need new credit.
Remember, every consumer is entitled to one free copy of a credit report from each of the bureaus once a year. To get your free report, go to www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228. You will have to enter your Social Security number to verify your identity. Be careful of other offers of “free” reports — you are most likely signing up for a service. If you feel you are the victim of ID theft, you can get a free report directly from the credit bureaus by going to their websites.
In cases involving a breach, a credit monitoring service might be offered for free. Velasquez said it is OK to accept the service, but remember that means something has happened to your credit after the fact, not before. She said an entity like the city of Akron may not have the finances to pay for credit monitoring.
Velasquez said her organization doesn’t endorse any specific products. “Credit monitoring is a tool that people can choose to use if they want to try to monitor their credit. If you choose to hire one of these companies, make sure you understand what the service provides.” Velasquez said her organization believes companies that promise to prevent ID theft are not being accurate. “You cannot prevent it 100 percent. You can put a lot of things in place to minimize the risk.”
As far as insurance companies, some offer ID theft protection in your homeowner’s premium. The protection varies from reimbursements to monitoring services to counselors. Others may offer that for an additional premium.
Remember, carry only the number of credit cards you need for a specific outing. Keep your Social Security card at home. Ask doctors, businesses and other organizations not to identity you by your Social Security number. While Medicare cards do use a Social Security number, they should not be carried daily. A medical emergency department cannot deny you service if you aren’t carrying the card.
Don’t give out personal information unless you initiate the contact and trust the individual or organization.
Review medical, bank and credit card statements to look for discrepancies. If you notice that you haven’t received your regular bills lately, make sure they aren’t being sent somewhere else.