Here are some tips for protecting your identity and what to do if you become a theft victim:
If you are a victim
•?Contact your local police to file a report.
•?The Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit agency in San Diego, offers free victim assistance at 888-400-5530 or online at www.idtheftcenter.org.
•?The Ohio Attorney General’s Consumer Identity Theft Unit can assist consumers after they’ve been ID theft victims by helping them straighten out accounts. Also, the office can provide a self-help assistance guide. A police report must be filed. 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. There can be inconveniences until consumers get their money back if thieves are able to take money from a bank account.
To protect yourself
•?Freeze your credit: You can ward off thieves by freezing your credit, which would not allow anyone, including yourself, to access new credit in your name without paying to lift the freeze. A credit freeze does not affect your current credit or your ability to use your credit cards. According to Ohio state law, credit freezes cost $5 per person to place and $5 to lift temporarily. Victims of ID theft can get the freeze for free, with a police report.
It is recommended to place a freeze at each of the bureaus for yourself and your spouse. Here is contact information:
— 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
Eva Casey Velasquez, president and chief executive officer of the Identity Theft Resource Center, said her organization suggests credit freezes if you are a victim of identity theft or if you believe you have a high likelihood of being a victim (such as previous data breaches). “For the general public, the credit freeze is the strongest tool, but you do have to understand the ramifications of it. You need a PIN [number to access] and you will not be able to easily access your credit,” she said.
Several years ago, I placed credit freezes on the reports for my husband and myself. We have never been the victims of ID theft, but our information has been compromised over the years through some data breaches. To me, it offers peace of mind. But we also don’t seek credit often. When we were in the market for a car, I paid to temporarily lift the freezes. It does mean we can’t get “instant” credit at a store, but I’m OK with that.
•?Check your credit: Every consumer is entitled to one free copy of his or her credit report from each of the credit 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.
Asked about services that monitor credit or other services that claim to protect your identity, 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.”
•?Check with your insurance company: Some companies offer ID theft protection that is already included in your homeowner’s premium. The protection varies from reimbursements to monitoring services to counselors to help if information has been compromised. Others may offer that for an additional premium.
Velasquez said that’s a good option, but she would recommend that ID theft victims “not completely abdicate about the cleanup. Nobody cares as much about your credit health as you do,” she said.
•?Guard your personal information: 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. An 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 personal information is lost or stolen, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a victim of ID theft.
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty.