FREEHOLD – Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni wants you to know how to protect yourself and your family in the wake of the recent report of a data breach at one of the top credit reporting agencies. The breach could put your assets and personal information in jeopardy.
In early September, the credit reporting firm Equifax reported that it suffered a data breach due to a hack that could potentially affect nearly 150 million consumers in the United States. To put the size of this breach into perspective, that is roughly 47 percent of the United States population.
Equifax advised that the breach was discovered on July 29 of this year, and the exposed data included confidential and personal information – examples include names, birthdates, Social Security numbers, addresses, credit card numbers and driver’s license numbers.
“Your identity is everything in this day and age, so having your name, address and other important information in the hands of a criminal mind puts you and your financial future in a vulnerable position. We are urging everyone to check and double check your bank accounts, credit accounts, and any account that could fall prey to the information gathered through this data breach. Do not have an ‘it couldn’t happen to me’ attitude. It can happen to anyone who doesn’t take steps to protect themselves,” warned Gramiccioni.
Armed with this personal information, criminals can easily commit a host of frauds and crimes designed to steal money from financial institutions, open credit, steal identities, and a host of other financial crimes at the expense of the innocent and unaware.
Here are some recommended steps and practices to be taken to protection your assets and personal information:
- Determine whether you are affected!
Every consumer is entitled to a free credit report once annually from each of the three credit reporting companies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). You can request a copy at the website www.annualcreditreport.com, and copies are provided instantly online, or paper copies can be mailed. From there, you can review your credit report for any possible fraudulent activity. For further instruction on how to request your credit report, please consult this link: https://www.consumerfinance.gov/ask-cfpb/how-do-i-get-a-copy-of-my-credit-reports-en-5/
Note: For consumers under the age of 13, you must submit a written request to each credit reporting firm for a child’s credit report. The letter request must include copies of the child’s birth certificate, Social Security card, the requestor’s driver’s license, and a utility bill matching the address where the credit reports will be mailed. For further guidance on how to protect children from such fraudulent conduct, please consult: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2015/10/protecting-your-childs-information-after-data-breach
- What if I am affected?
Immediately contact each financial institution or credit card company and report the fraudulent activity. Most banks and companies will not hold victims responsible for fraudulent purchases or charges. From there, consider setting up a fraud alert that requires financial institutions to verify identify before opening new accounts, extending credit limits, or issuing additional credit cards. Initial fraud alerts only last for 90 days, so be sure to pay attention to renewal dates. Additionally, if you were the victim of identity theft, you can set up an extended alert with financial institutions that lasts seven years. Directions on how to place fraud alerts on your credit reports can be found here: https://www.consumerfinance.gov/ask-cfpb/what-do-i-do-if-i-think-i-have-been-a-victim-of-identity-theft-en-31/
Also, consider setting up a credit freeze to prevent further fraud or identity theft activity with the credit reporting firms. A credit or security freeze restricts access to your credit report. Typically, creditors will not offer you credit if your credit file cannot be accessed, so it prevents you and others from opening new accounts in your name. In most states, credit freezes last until you remove this protection. Directions on how to set up credit freezes can be found here: https://www.consumerfinance.gov/ask-cfpb/what-does-it-mean-to-put-a-security-freeze-on-my-credit-report-en-1341/
Finally, if you find you have been a victim of identity theft or any of your accounts have been breached, contact your financial institutions and your local police department.
- Change your Passwords!
Change your passwords on all your financial accounts, and give serious consideration to changing passwords on other accounts as well. Be sure to create strong passwords that do not contain common or expected information such as birthdays, family member names, addresses and the like. For tips on how to create strong passwords, please see: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2015/07/advanced-password-tips-and-tricks
- What Other Preventive Actions Can I Take?
Read your Credit Card and Bank Account Statements Closely. Even small charges can be a sign of danger as thieves will often make “test” charges to see if a consumer is paying attention. If not, they often return to make larger charges. Additionally, it is easier to dispute fraudulent or questionable charges when they are reported to banks and companies as soon as possible.
File your Taxes as Soon as Possible. Tax filing season is traditionally an active time for scammers who try to steal taxpayers’ tax refund, so make sure you file before they do. The IRS will only contact you by official letter, never by telephone. Never provide information, account numbers, passwords, names or personal information in response to telephone or email contacts.
Never Ignore Bills from Businesses you Don’t Recognize. While you may not recognize a bill or invoice sent to you from a company or financial institution, someone may have used your personal information to open an account in your name. Contact the institution to find out precisely what happened.
- Use a Safe and Shredder.
Keep copies of personal and financial information in a safe and secure place, and be sure to shred materials containing such sensitive information before disposing of them. Criminals and scammers are not above sifting through your trash to defraud you and steal your identity for their financial gain at your expense.
- If you are an Active Duty Servicemember in the Armed Forces.
If you are an active duty military member serving at home or abroad, there are additional protections that you can take to ensure you are not victimized. Please see: https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/blog/servicemembers-should-secure-their-identity-after-equifax-data-breach/
These are just a few of the steps that can be taken to protect your assets, personal information and identity. For further information, you can search for the “Consumer Financial Protection Bureau” (CFPB). The CFPB is a federal agency responsible for consumer protection in the financial sector, and they release periodic guidance on how to protect yourself from the Equifax data breach and other frauds and scams. In the end, it takes constant vigilance to protect your credit and finances so be prepared!