The news appears more and more frequently. A bank’s system was hacked. Or an alarming letter arrives from your accountant, reporting that one of their laptops has gone missing. It’s possible – even likely – that your information is now being used by thieves. What are the dangers, and what steps should you take?
The main danger is that anyone who has a certain set of information – your name, your address, your social security number and your date of birth – can use it to open lines of credit in your name. For example, a thief could go to Macy’s, and take out a new Macy’s credit card while pretending to be you. Then the thief charges a large amount of merchandise, and leaves with many bags of goods. You only discover what happened a month or so later, when a bill arrives, and then you will have the horrible task of trying to deny that you ever made these purchases. Some people never manage it; others are punished for years with problems with their credit scores.
It’s better, of course, to prevent the problems from occurring in the first place. Here are some things that you can do when you learn of a breach in security:
1. Contact the company whose security systems were compromised
Find out what they believe the extent of the damage is. For example, do they believe that anyone now has enough information to access your accounts? You may want to change your passwords or even move your money to a more secure institution.
2. Ask the compromised company what they recommend and for what they will pay
It’s best to be concerned and polite – at least in your initial conversation with them, because they may already have set up procedures to handle the problem efficiently. For example, they may have already contacted personnel from the local credit bureau in order to assist and protect their clients. Or they may have already instituted traces on the activity in the compromised files.
On the other hand, the people company may play down their responsibility in the situation, because they don’t want to encourage expenses, lawsuits, or ill will. If they don’t offer to pay, tell them that you expect them to do so. There’s a chance that their insurance covers it anyway, so you may not have to argue for very long.
3. Go to your local credit bureau and put an identity theft alert on your social security number
To do this you need to know your social security number, your birth date, and your address and phone number. After you do this, anyone who tries to open a credit card in your name will not be able to do so – not until someone calls your home number and the true identity is verified. The length of time this blocking procedure will be in place varies. The longer you want the protection, the more you will have to pay.
Each social security number needs to be blocked separately, so if you are a married couple filing jointly, and your accountant’s laptop was stolen, you will have to put identity theft alerts on both numbers. This unfortunately doubles the cost.
4. Important! Look at all your snail mail
You may be in the habit of tossing away, unopened, letters from companies with whom you have no business. This is a habit you should change. Open the envelopes and make sure that none of them contain bills for new accounts made in your name.
If there appears to be a new account in your name, first check with your family members, and if neither you nor they recall doing this, contact the police and inform them that you are the victim of identity theft. Do not call 911; no one is dying; look up the local number and call the station.
5. Monitor your accounts carefully
Make sure that you understand and approve of every charge appearing on your bills. Hopefully you will find no unauthorized charges, but if you do, contact the credit card company immediately and deny making the charge. They will work with you to cancel the credit card and issue you a new one.
Hopefully your data will never be stolen, but with the prevalence of laptops and financial data, the chances of it happening to you increase each day. However, by taking the steps above you should be able to prevent yourself from becoming the victim of identity theft, or to minimize the consequences if you are.