Every day, it seems like there’s a new headline about another major corporation suffering a data breach. Hackers have launched sophisticated attacks that have endangered the personal information of millions of people. At this point, a report of a data breach across “millions of consumers” has become so commonplace that some people aren’t even alarmed by this news. And, once critical information – names, dates of birth, social security numbers, account information – are exposed to the world, there’s nothing you can do to get that information back.
According to many reports, identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America. Once identity thieves have your personal information, they can easily empty your bank accounts, run up charges on your credit cards, open utility accounts, or even use your health insurance to get medical treatment.
If you’re lucky, you haven’t yet been the victim of a data breach. But, as these incidents become increasingly common, you may not stay safe for long. While having your data exposed doesn’t necessarily mean that your identity has been stolen, it does mean that you may be more susceptible to identity theft. Unfortunately, you can’t prevent a data breach, but you can take steps to safeguard your personal information and reduce the damage should your identity be stolen.
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Never throw away important documents
You can safeguard your personal information and reduce the likelihood of identity theft by shredding paper documents. For online document storage, be sure to use very strong passwords, with a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols.
Monitor your Credit Regularly
You should periodically check your credit report with Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends that you examine your credit report at least once a year to make sure the information in the report is accurate and up to date. Additionally, it is advisable to check your credit before making a major purchase that may involve a loan or before applying for a new job.
Federal law entitles you to one free credit report per year from each agency. You can obtain your free credit report by going to www.annualcreditreport.com. If you’d like a more systematic approach to monitoring your credit, there are multiple services that provide ongoing credit monitoring.
Sign up for the IRS Pin Program
The IRS has a program called the IRS PIN program to help deter instances of tax related identity theft. If you’ve ever been a victim of tax related identify theft, or if you live in Georgia, Florida, Michigan, California, Maryland, Nevada, Delaware, Illinois, Rhode Island or the District of Columbia – you can participate. When you enroll in the PIN program, the IRS will mail you a specific code one time, each year, typically in January. You will submit this PIN number when you file your return. If you do not submit the PIN when filing the return, the IRS will reject the return. This is one way to prevent people from fraudulently filing an income tax return on your behalf. For more information on setting up an IRS pin, please refer to our guide.
Freeze your Credit
If your personal information has been exposed or stolen (or you suspect that it has been compromised), you may want to put a security freeze on your credit.
A security freeze on your credit prevents unauthorized people from accessing your credit report. It also prevents any new extension of credit. To accomplish a complete security freeze, you will need to freeze your credit with all three major reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. During the enrollment process, each bureau will ask you to create a 6- to 10-digit PIN, which will be required in the event you want to “thaw” your freeze to give someone access to run your credit.
You can freeze your credit online, over the phone or through the mail. For most users, going online is the easiest. For more information on freezing your credit, including contact information for the credit reporting agencies, refer to our identity theft victim guide here.