Frustration. Confusion. Anger.
That sums up the range of emotions from the many readers continuing to contact me since Equifax announced three weeks ago that 143 million U.S. residents were victims of a data breach. No wonder. The unprecedented hack exposed their names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth. That’s the “mother lode” for identity theft, allowing anyone to pretend to be you. Forever.
Some, following my recommendation to freeze their credit files with Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, report struggling to connect by phone or online, even at 3 a.m. Others recounted frustrated instances of being disconnected from what are obviously overloaded systems. Other than being patient and continue trying, I’m suggesting placing a temporary fraud alert with all three credit reporting agencies (CRAs). In fact, even those who’ve successfully placed freezes should do the same.
“For maximum protection, we recommend using both freezes and fraud alerts,” explains Consumer Reports. “As the Equifax breach showed, you can’t be too careful.”
That’s because even if your credit files are “padlocked” with a freeze, a fraud alert flags a potential lender to contact you before granting new credit. It’s an extra layer of protection. The alert lasts 90 days, is free, and can be placed by contacting just one CRA, which then notifies the other two. TransUnion appears to have the most user-friendly automated service at 800-680-7289.
Then there’s the continued confusion between a “lock” and a freeze. Equifax and TransUnion are offering “convenient” locks for free. While similar in concept, locks are private company-created products. They’re not protected and regulated by state law. And they can subject you to unwanted third-party marketing offers.
A number of readers had additional questions concerning my suggestion to take advantage of a voluntary IRS pilot program, issuing tax ID theft-prone Florida residents an Identity Protection PIN. It must be included when filing your tax return each year, preventing an imposter from getting a “refund” by electronically filing a bogus return using just your Social Security number. Normally only verifiable ID theft victims are issued IP PINs.
But, there’s no rush, as the IP PIN tool for 2017 won’t likely become available until late December. The application can ONLY be done online at www.irs.gov/getanippin. If you have a credit freeze with Equifax — and only Equifax — it must be temporarily lifted, because your Equifax credit file is used as part of the IRS identity verification process. You’ll also need an email account, and a mobile phone in your name which can receive text messages for third-party authentication purposes.
In additional to IRS government ID theft, that Social Security number and date of birth could make you a victim of medical identity theft. That’s where crooks get prescription drugs, medical services or equipment or file bogus insurance claims, all in your name. There’s nothing — including credit freezes or PINs — to prevent medical ID theft. So diligently check all insurance explanation of benefits (EOB) statements or Medicare summary notices, and immediately report any suspicious claims.
To learn more about other types of identity theft, go to the ID Theft Resource Center at www.idtheftcenter.org. And click the tab “connect with us” to subscribe to free newsletters, with alerts about potential threats to your identity or privacy, along with tips to help keep you safe.
David Morris is the Sun’s consumer advocate. Contact him c/o the Sun, 23170 Harborview Road, Charlotte Harbor, FL 33980; email [email protected]; or leave a message at 941-206-1114.
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