snow money

By Joel Dresang

My own experiences with identity theft can offer warnings and reassurances to consumers worried about the latest massive compromise of personal financial information.

The fact that the Sept. 7 announcement by Equifax Inc. is just the latest security breach underscores the warning: Your personal financial information is vulnerable. It has been, and you should expect that it always will be. That horse is out of the barn.

Knowing that there is nothing you can do to absolutely prevent your ID from being stolen should spur you to be more vigilant against the damages that could occur once somebody can pose as you and borrow and spend money in your name. Consider the following:

  1. As always, don’t panic. Rash decisions could expose you to fraud that preys on fear. Be suspicious of online messages and phone calls that might be trying to trick you into divulging more information.
  2. Freezing your credit. Through each of the three credit bureaus, you can require Equifax, Experian and TransUnion to refuse to respond to creditors looking to open new accounts in your name. However, if you need a credit check for a loan, a new job or any other reason, you would have to pay the bureaus to unfreeze your credit and then to reinstate the freeze afterward. At no cost, you can request a fraud alert with one of the agencies, through which lenders would be warned to double-check that a would-be borrower is really you. Fraud alerts have to be renewed every 90 days, but victims of ID theft can be eligible for an extended fraud alert that lasts seven years.
  3. Monitoring your finances. Credit freezes do not restrict credit bureau disclosures to businesses where you have existing relationships. That’s another reason to carefully review your monthly statements from banks and credit card issuers. Immediately report the slightest discrepancy in case someone else has been using your accounts. Open paper mail that looks like a bill, even if it’s from a company you don’t do business with. That’s how I found out someone opened an Amazon card in my name.
  4. Examining your credit reports. Order and review the free annual report you’re owed by each of the three credit bureaus. Stagger your requests so that you have a report coming from one of the three agencies every four months. Follow instructions to correct any incorrect information. Expect the bureaus to offer to sell you additional services.
  5. Protecting your information. Never carry sensitive information in your wallet or purse, including personal identification numbers (PINs) and Social Security cards. Always be careful sharing any personal information and only with people you trust.
  6. Changing your password(s). Make it hard for ID thieves to get access to websites where you have sensitive information. Don’t use the same password for more than one site. Create long, complex passwords that include upper- and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters, if possible. Enable options for secondary or two-factor authentication, if available. Make a habit of changing your passwords frequently.

Don’t worry about your identity getting stolen. It already has been, or it will be inevitably. Instead of worrying, take steps including those suggested here to try to confound those who have taken your ID.

Sure, crooks got an Amazon card in my name and ordered $2,800 in merchandise, but because I detected it immediately and addressed it, the only cost to me was peace of mind and hassle.

Precautions such as regularly changing passwords and reviewing bank statements are minor inconveniences, like donning extra layers and bundling up when the winter gets bitter. We know in Wisconsin that frigid days come eventually, and if we refuse to guard against them, we face the consequences at our own peril.

Learn more
Freeze: Chilling effect on ID theft, by Joel Dresang
Consumer Information on Identity Theft, from the Federal Trade Commission
Credit Freeze FAQs, from the Federal Trade Commission (en Español)
Identity Theft and Your Social Security Number, from the Social Security Administration
Identity Theft Information for Taxpayers and Victims, from the Internal Revenue Service
Report identity theft via the federal website.

ID Theft Protection Services
Paying an outfit to protect your identity might seem a quick and easy solution. Just know that protection isn’t guaranteed.

LifeLock, which sells identity theft protection for monthly fees, had 16 emails in my spam folder in the last month, including two in the four days since the Equifax news – and one the day before the announcement with the eerily prescient subject line, “Are you a victim of Data Breach?”

LifeLock settled government claims that it had not been protecting customers’ data properly. In the fine print of its materials, it says, “No one can prevent all identity theft.”

LifeLock isn’t the only company taken to task for not providing the identity theft protection services it purported. The federal government has gone after Affinion Group HoldingsIntersections Inc.Discover Financial Services and more.

Consumer Reports has looked askance at such services, which typically charge between $120 and $300 a year for vigilance that the publication suggests most consumers could do on their own for nothing. Click here to read more.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

(initially posted Sept. 12, 2017; revised Feb. 9, 2022, March 22, 2022)

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