Betty Lin-Fisher
Beacon Journal consumer columnist

Editor’s note: This is a compilation of two columns originally written by Beacon Journal consumer columnist Betty Lin-Fisher about data breaches and advice for consumers.

These days, it seems like we consumers get word of data breaches so many times that we’ve become numb to it.

Who is it this time? We often ask.

It’s annoying but part of your job of managing money to closely monitor accounts and take extra cautionary steps.

The advice regarding responding to data breaches is nothing new. If you learn your personal data has been compromised, monitor your accounts closely and not just for a few months. Look for strange charges — even for small amounts — and report them to your credit or debit card company as soon as possible.

Watch for fake emails and other correspondence that’s likely to come. Don’t be fooled by an email or phone call saying a company is contacting you about the breach and they need you to verify your information.

Rod Griffin, a spokesman with the credit reporting agency Experian points out that identity theft doesn’t just happen via your credit at the bureaus. Identity thieves can try to use stolen information to obtain credit through organizations that don’t review credit reports.

A scammer could also apply for jobs using a false identity, or obtain medical treatment.

The depth of the information breached should determine the additional steps you need to take.

I interviewed Eva Casey Velasquez, president and chief executive officer of the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that offers free help and advice to ID theft victims (www.idtheftcenter.org) for more advice.

Normally, victims of identity theft get the freezes for free and people can also proactively place credit freezes on their reports for $5 per bureau. TransUnion lists its fee for Ohio residents also at $5, though when I've put on my credit freeze and lifted it, it has been free.

As a refresher, I can relate that my family has placed credit freezes on our reports for several years. We did so after our information had been compromised by data breaches and because we’re not looking for new credit. When we want or need to apply for credit, we pay $5 to “thaw” or “lift” the freeze per bureau.

The procedure offers peace of mind that we hold the keys to our credit and no one else. The downside is that you must plan ahead to “lift” the credit freeze and you don’t ever apply for instant credit at a store (not necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion).

Velasquez said such decisions are up to each individual.

“It certainly cannot hurt any consumer to have a freeze on their credit as far as protecting themselves from identity theft,” she said.

The freeze does not affect your current credit or your ability to use your credit cards.

There are some scenarios — such as for young people who are trying to build their credit and who may be looking for a vehicle or home — where having a freeze would be cumbersome, she said.

“Those are very personal choices based on your lifestyle: security versus the convenience factor,” she said.

One victim in a previous hack into data with the city of Akron data discovered that since he had a credit freeze on his credit reports, he was unable to access his account information on the government’s Social Security website. I confirmed with Social Security that the administration verifies identities using Experian. If there is a credit freeze in place, it must be lifted during that verification process.

Another option is that a person may visit a Social Security office to verify an identity without lifting the freeze.

Velasquez if a breach has no indications that Social Security numbers were taken, the need for a credit freeze can be lessened somewhat because of that.

Affected companies often offer a year of free credit monitoring. Velasquez said it can make sense to use it.

She said to watch for renewal notices at the end of the year’s period.

But remember that monitoring your credit by looking at transactions is “reactive,” meaning taking something into account that has already happened.

Being “proactive” is taking action before charges take place.

Griffin of Experian said that anyone who has a credit freeze can still use the credit monitoring service. However, you will only get notices when there is activity on your existing accounts and not any alerts of any attempts for new credit since the freeze should have thwarted that.

But it’s still good to know if thieves are trying to access existing accounts and changing address information.

The free Experian credit monitoring service will give consumers access to a free credit report from them for 30 days. Take advantage of that, as well as setting up alerts for any suspicious activity by email or text. Experian offers a look at your credit score for a fee, but keep in mind that it is Experian’s own scoring model and not the widely used FICO score.

By law, you can also always get a free copy of your credit reports from the other two bureaus once a year (all three are available) by going to www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228. You must disclose your Social Security number to verify your identity. Identity theft victims can get reports for free.

Velasquez said consumers with debit cards that were involved in the Target breach should insist on getting new cards from their financial institution.

Debit cards provide direct access to a checking account, she said. And Velasquez said the ID Theft Center has received some reports of consumers being held responsible for some charges.

For credit cards, if the financial institution has not yet canceled the card, continue to monitor your account closely, she said. Be sure you have zero liability if any fraud were to happen.

Here is contact information to place a credit freeze (remember to do it for spouses as well):

• Equifax: 800-685-1111, Equifax Security Freeze, P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, GA 30348-5788 or http://www.equifax.com/CreditReportAssistance

• Experian: 888-397-3742, Experian Security Freeze, P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013 or www.experian.com/freeze/center.html

• TransUnion: 888-909-8872, TransUnion, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016 or www.transunion.com/securityfreeze

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty