If you use a computer, you are vulnerable and at risk of having your information compromised. I am old-fashioned, and while I use a computer for many things, I don’t use it for on-line banking. I have to wait until my bank statement arrives every month to check for my deposits and withdrawals and balance my checkbook (yes, I still do that). This does not mean that I am in the clear. Anyone who uses a computer is at risk, regardless of how little you think you may be doing from a financial perspective on-line.
Unfortunately, breaches are all too common; the biggest examples snared Marriott, Equifax, eBay, Yahoo, Target, and Home Depot (among others).
Thankfully, there are a few ways you can protect your financial information.
The big three—Equifax, Experian and Transunion—all use the same data to produce their reports, but weigh the criteria differently. So a score of 700 (fair) from one might be a 720 (good) from another. You can obtain one free credit report per year from each of these companies and can request a copy from annualcreditreport.com. Additional reports can be obtained and cost no more than $12.50 (by law). You can easily scan the report to ensure there is no misinformation. Several credit card companies offer free credit reporting as well, so you may want to check with them.
A fraud alert requires each of the big three to put a special note in your credit file that says you believe that you may have been a victim of identity theft. A lender is then required to take “reasonable” measures to verify your identity before approving credit in your name. Fraud alerts expire every 90 days but can be extended to seven years if you have been a victim of identity theft. A fraud alert would be appropriate if your wallet was stolen, for example.
A credit monitoring service will watch your activity and alert you regularly regarding any changes (or no changes). For example, it will watch for any new credit cards that have been issued in your name, request to increase a credit limit or if “you” have recently acquired a mortgage (yes, this did happen to someone I know). There are more than 20 credit monitoring services on the market. Reviews.com looked at all of them and ranked their top three: myFICO (the best for improving your credit score); IdentityForce (the best for basic monitoring); and Identity Guard (the most user-friendly). myFICO is about $40/month while IdentityForce and Identity Guard are about $20/month.
Credit or Security Freeze
Given the extent of the Equifax hack, this is an important new-normal step to consider.
By placing a freeze on your credit (which is now free), you can restrict access to your credit report, making it more difficult for a thief to open new credit in your name. If a lender cannot see your credit report because it’s been frozen, you cannot get additional credit. To put a freeze on your credit, call Equifax (1-800-685-1111), Transunion (1-888-909-8872) and Experian (1-888-397-3742). To lift the freeze, either temporarily or permanently, call (or go on line) and make a request; it is supposed to be unlocked within one hour.
While not necessarily related, you can opt-out of receiving those pesky, pre-approved credit card or life insurance solicitations that come regularly in the mail. You can opt-out for five years or permanently. To opt-out for five years, call 1-888-567-8666 or go to www.optoutprescreen.com. To opt-out permanently, go to www.optoutprescreen.com and return the signed Permanent Opt-Out Election Form, which will be provided to you after the initiate the request.