Identify Theft In The Digital Age

As you may have read, there was a security problem at Equifax, one of the country’s largest credit reporting agencies.  Equifax announced that their system was breached between May and July of 2017 and that social security numbers and birth dates were released for approximately 143 million U.S. consumers.  Within that group of people, credit card numbers were released for approximately 209,000 consumers.

Equifax has hired a leading cybersecurity firm to conduct a thorough forensic investigation, and Equifax believes they have corrected the flaw in the software which allowed the intrusion to occur.

In addition, Equifax has established a website to help people determine whether their information was part of the released data.  That site is: https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/.  By providing your last name and the last six digits of your social security number, Equifax will determine whether you were impacted.

If you were impacted, Equifax will provide one year’s credit file monitoring and identify theft protection at no charge to you.  We highly recommend that you visit the site for a determination of whether you have been impacted.

If you have been impacted, we also recommend that you consider another identity theft protection company, LifeLock, and compare the services.  We have recommended Lifelock to our clients on those occasions when they experienced a potential breach, and they have all been very satisfied with the service.  LifeLock’s services are not free, and they range from $9 to $30 per month.  They have a guide to help you determine which level of service your income and net worth would warrant.

We suggest you consider LifeLock simply because we perceive Equifax to be late to the party in the sense that they have had to develop a service in response to their breach.  We do not believe they could possibly have put into that service the research, testing, and refinement which LifeLock has had 12 years to perfect.

Beyond the specific breach at Equifax, let’s consider the broader questions:  what is identity theft and how can you protect against it?

There are several common types of identity theft that can affect you:

  • Child ID Theft- Children’s IDs are vulnerable because the theft may go undetected for many years. By the time they are adults, the damage has already been done to their identities.
  • Tax ID Theft – A thief uses your social security number to falsely file tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service or state government.
  • Medical ID Theft – This form of ID theft happens when someone steals your personal information, such as your Medicare ID or health insurance member number to get medical services or to issue fraudulent billing to your health insurance provider.
  • Senior ID Theft – ID theft schemes that target seniors. Seniors are vulnerable to ID theft because they are in more frequent contact with medical professionals who get their medical insurance information, or caregivers and staff at long-term care facilities that have access to personal information or financial documents.
  • Social Security ID Theft – A thief uses your name, photos, and other personal information to create a phony account on a social media platform.

Each of these is capable of impacting your entire life or impacting a small sliver of it.  In many ways, the small ones can be more harmful because the “theft” can last longer before being detected.

For all these potential thefts, though, there are some safeguards you can take:

  • Secure your social security number (SSN). Don’t carry your social security card in your wallet or write your number on your checks. Only give out your SSN when absolutely necessary.
  • Don’t respond to unsolicited requests for personal information (your name, birthdate, social security number, or bank account number) by phone, email, or online.
  • Contact the three credit reporting agencies to request a freeze of your credit reports.
  • Collect mail promptly, and place a hold on your mail service when you are away from home for several days (The U.S. Postal Service will help with this).
  • Pay attention to your billing cycles. If bills or financial statements are late, contact the sender.
  • Enable the security features on mobile devices, especially if you have contacts, banking websites and applications saved.
  • Update sharing and firewall settings when you’re on a public wi-fi network.  Consider using a virtual private network, which can give you the privacy of secured private network.
  • Review your credit card and bank account statements. Promptly compare receipts with account statements. Watch for unauthorized transactions.
  • Shred receipts, credit offers, account statements, and expired credit cards, to prevent “dumpster divers” from getting your personal information.
  • Store personal information in a safe place at home and at work.
  • Install firewalls and virus-detection software on your home computer.
  • Create complex passwords that identity thieves cannot guess easily. Change your passwords if a company that you do business with has a breach of its databases
  • Review your credit report once a year to be certain that it doesn’t include accounts that you have not opened. You can order it for free from Annualcreditreport.com.
  • Consider using a credit theft protection service, such as LifeLock, even if you haven’t had your identity stolen.  Remember, these are the steps we recommend to prevent the theft in the first place.

Nobody likes the thought of someone else pretending to be them in the world.  We all value our reputation and want to be known for who we are, not for who someone else has portrayed us to be.  But beyond the uncomfortable feelings of being personally hacked, lie real potential economic consequences.

In light of the Equifax breach, we strongly advise everyone to take the Equifax test to see if there’s a possible breach, and whether that answer is yes or no, certainly consider taking the steps above to prevent ID theft from happening in the future.

The reality of our digital world is that there will be another breach of someone’s system somewhere and some time in the future.  Now is the time to protect yourself from that.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call or email me, or in my absence, anyone else at First Financial.  We’re all here to help you.

626-844-4630