It is fairly often now that we hear of companies that lose our personal financial data when it is stored on a laptop that went missing, or part of a security breach of a database. Although most data thefts involve hundreds of thousands of individual records, the reported cases of identity theft that result from the stolen data from companies like TJX (the company has not reported number of records at risk), ChoicePoint (145,000 records), and McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin (197,000 records) is proportionally minuscule.
Even so, the number of companies reporting a similar loss of customer data seems to be growing, and it leaves affected individuals wondering what to do next.
If you have found evidence that your personal information is being misused, or a company has contacted you and said your personal information was accessed unlawfully, then you can take the following steps to protect yourself.
Place a Fraud Alert on Your Credit Report
You can place a 90-day fraud alert at all three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, by calling their toll-free numbers. When the fraud alert is in place, you will be notified if someone tries to open up a credit card or account in your name. The alert also gives the information to creditors that your financial identity may be compromised. It is generally used if you have a suspicion of identity theft, but no specific activity on your credit cards.
To place a fraud alert:
Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742)
The first time you call to place a fraud alert, you only need to call one of the three credit bureaus; the one you contact is required by law to contact the other two credit bureaus. You can also get a free copy of your credit report at that time by law. The 90-day fraud alert must be renewed with all three credit bureaus every 90 days or the alert will drop your credit reports.
A 7-year fraud alert is available for consumers with unexplained activity on their credit report if they have filed a police report. Although it essentially does the same thing as the 90-day alert, it expires only after 7 years.
File a Police Report
If you have experienced actual misuse of your cards or financial information, you should file a police report and contact the Federal Trade Commission. Filing a police report is necessary in case the credit card companies or credit bureaus require proof that a crime was committed.
The FTC has an ID Theft Affidavit you can complete through their website www.ftc.gov/idtheft which you can use as supporting documentation. In addition, contacting the FTC gives law enforcement the ability to link investigations of similar cases.
Contact the Fraud Departments of the Cards at Risk
Contact the fraud departments of your credit cards or bank cards to close the accounts at risk. Anytime you call a creditor, you should also write to the company to document in writing the nature of your concern. Your creditor should be able to provide written proof that the account was closed and the fraudulent charges were discharged.
Although credit freezes are not currently available in all states, if you are in a state where they exist, you should be aware of how they work. A credit freeze will prevent any credit related activity on your credit report while it is frozen. That means that no companies, even those which with you have a legitimate business relationship, will be able to check your credit report. You have the option of unfreezing your account to allow a creditor time to review your credit report. There is a charge in some states for a credit freeze. In others, a credit freeze is free only after there is unexplained activity on your credit report.
States that offer by law a credit freeze:
Find Out What the Company is Doing About It
Finally, you should find out what remedies are being taken by the company that is responsible for your stolen data. In many cases, the company will establish a hotline for customers to call for up-to-date information. Often, the company will make formal announcements about upgrades to its security processes. If you think the company is not taking enough steps to prevent another security breach, your best option is to stop doing business with them.
This type of data theft is particularly bothersome for the consumer because there is virtually nothing we can do about it. And it is worth noting that not all data theft leads to identity theft. But if you find out that someone has stolen your personal financial information, the best bet is treat it as a worst-case scenario and take action to protect yourself.