Unfortunately, we receive several calls each year from clients who have had social security numbers or identities stolen. Most often the theft is identified when someone uses the stolen information to open (or attempt to open) a credit card. Identity theft continues to be a significant problem in the United States. Experts estimate that social security numbers of more than 200 million Americans have been exposed in hacks over the past several years. If you believe that your Social Security number has been compromised, here are some steps that you should take immediately to protect your identity.
1. Check your credit reports.
Go to Annualcreditreport.com to get your free credit report detailing the credit activity under your social security number. Don’t be fooled by imitations of this website. Annualcreditreport.com is the only source for the legally mandated free report from each credit bureau. Don’t worry about your credit score. The report lists all of the accounts open in your name, and the activity in each. Review the activity and look for accounts you don’t recognize. If you see a credit card or account that you didn’t open, contact the credit agency immediately.
2. Place a ‘Credit Freeze’ on your files.
A credit freeze is a tool that will restrict access to your credit report, making it more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. Admittedly, placing a credit freeze on your account can be a hassle since you will not be able to open new credit cards or loans without first temporarily unfreezing your credit using your secret PIN, but this is a very effective tool to keep identity thieves from even getting started. If you don’t anticipate opening new loans or credit cards anytime soon, why not lock down your credit so no one else can use your information?
To place a credit freeze on your account you will need to contact each of the credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and Transunion. Essentially each reporting agency will send you a unique PIN that you will need to ‘unfreeze’ your credit each time you need a loan. You can learn more about freezing your credit on the Federal Trade Commission Website: www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0497-credit-freeze-faqs.
Note that a credit freeze is different from a fraud alert. A fraud alert simply alerts a potential creditor that you have been the victim of identity theft and asks them to verify your identity before opening any new credit. A fraud alert is a good step, but the creditor can decide the appropriate steps to identify you, and can still extend credit in your name. I think that a credit freeze is far more effective.
3. Stop prescreened credit offers
Credit card offers in the mail aren’t just annoying, they are a potential risk if thieves steal your mail and then obtain your social security number. You can stop receiving prescreened credit offers by calling 888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688) or going to www.optoutprescreen.com
4. Consider subscribing to a credit monitoring service
If you know that your social security number has been compromised, it may be time to subscribe to a credit monitoring service. Credit monitoring is a subscription based service that reviews your credit for you, and typically provides some insurance against identity theft losses. There are many out there, but LifeLock is the biggest: www.lifelock.com
By taking these prudent steps, you can sleep better at night knowing that you are protected. If you have any questions, please feel free to call anytime.