By: Yamil Berard, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Last year’s massive data breach at Equifax highlighted the importance for consumers to take steps to protect their personal data.
With holiday shopping in full swing, consumer advocacy groups are urging the public to be cautious. It’s prime time for ID thieves to try to snatch sensitive information, experts say.
“People need to clearly understand what is at risk and therefore what they can actually do to protect themselves,’’ said Mike Litt, consumer campaign director with the Colorado-based consumer advocacy group U.S. Public Interest Research Group, known as PIRG.
One possible obstacle to knowing what to do is the onslaught of advice that the public receives about what to do to fend off an attack. In some cases, consumer advocate groups say the public is overwhelmed by “data breach fatigue.”
“I feel like people are so confused that they’ve resigned themselves to the idea that there’s just going to be a breach,” said Litt, who co-wrote the September 2018 report “Equifax Breach: One Year Later. How to Protect Yourself Against ID Theft & Hold Equifax Accountable.” If you remember, the breach exposed the Social Security numbers and personal data of hundreds of millions of Americans.
Here’s a simplified version of what you should know:
Consumers are vulnerable to all forms of identity theft, including bank fraud, utility fraud and insurance fraud, Litt said.
But the most common type of fraud is credit card theft, which represents about one-third of cases, according to a federal online database. The database keeps track of reports by consumers about problems in the marketplace, and reflects consumer reports submitted to the federal agency, as well as state agencies and other organizations.
In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission reported a total of more than 139,000 cases of credit card fraud, representing new and existing accounts, according to its Sentinel database. Compared to last year, there has been a rise of 20 percent on fraud of existing accounts. Tax- and wage-related fraud represent about 18 percent of cases. Phone or utilities fraud, which includes cellphones, landlines and utilities, make up about 12 percent.
You don’t have to spend many hours trying to protect your sensitive information. Creating fraud and consumer alerts and investing in credit monitoring services might be a good idea, experts say. The FTC offers free credit reports. You can also go to the official government website that walks you through a checklist of actions you can take to recover from identity theft.
But most important is that you take certain steps, such as making sure you have secure passwords, shredding important documents and equipping your computer with the right software.
If your data has been compromised, it’s important to understand what type of data has been accessed. For example, thieves who have your credit card number aren’t as big a threat as those who may have access to your Social Security data. You can more easily cancel your credit card and get a card with a new account number. But a thief who has your Social Security number and date of birth can try to file your tax return or get a hold of your government benefits.
Here what experts at PIRG say are the different types of fraud and what you can do:
In cases of existing bank account fraud, it’s important to know that it can only be detected after the fraud has occurred. What you can do? Check your monthly credit card and bank statements. Sign up for free text or email alerts about changes to your accounts. If you receive a call from your bank alleging fraud, never provide any personal information. Instead, call the number on the back of your bank card and check with the security department.
Consumers who worry about new account fraud of their cellphones, credit cards, loan and utilities can prevent these by getting credit freezes at all three nationwide credit bureaus. It is also a good idea to check your free annual credit reports or sign up for free credit monitoring.
As 2019 rolls around, you might want to take extra steps to prevent fraud related to your tax refund. You can file your taxes as soon as possible, before thieves do, and get an Identity Protection number or PIN that will secure the refund amount to you.
Social Security benefits fraud can be prevented if you sign up for a MySSA account before thieves can claim it and change your direct deposit information to their own checking accounts. A freeze on your credit report also blocks thieves from claiming your online account. You may want to check your MySSA account for any changes to your personal information that might indicate thieves trying to claim your benefits.
Medical benefits fraud can only be detected after it has occurred. You might want to sign up for online accounts with your health care and insurance providers to periodically check for any fraudulent services on your statements.
Fraud while applying for a job, getting insurance or renting a home can only be detected after the fraud has occurred. You might want to check your annual consumer reports with companies that specialize in collecting certain information, including checking writing, employment, insurance claims and tenant histories.