Since last fall, when Target and Neiman Marcus reported unauthorized access to payment-card data, the potential of identity theft has been consumers' minds. Thieves steal personal information, such as your name and address, Social Security number and date of birth, to commit fraud — for example, getting a loan in your name.
The first line of attack is getting informed. The best source for information on how to protect yourself is the Federal Trade Commission, a federal agency whose mission is consumer protection and law enforcement.
The FTC website at http://tinyurl.com/blbmymb provides a series of steps for those whose identity has been compromised, as well as preventive measures you can take to protect yourself.
Next, contact one of the three national credit-reporting companies: Equifax (http://http://www.equifax.com, 800-525-6285); Experian (http://http://www.experian.com, 888-397-3742); or TransUnion (http://http://www.transunion.com , 800-680-7289).
If your identity has been stolen, you'll want to place an "initial fraud alert" on your credit file to help prevent new accounts being opened in your name, according to Cliff O'Neal, spokesperson for TransUnion.
The fraud alert is intended to raise a cautionary flag for creditors to make sure they are dealing with you instead of a scammer. The initial alert lasts for "at least" 90 days but can be renewed. An alert with one bureau will trigger alerts with the other two. There is no charge for placing an alert.
To get a longer "extended alert" for seven years, you'll need to provide an identity-theft report based on your filing a report with a law-enforcement agency.
To read more about fraud alerts, visit http://www.ftc.gov/idtheft
You also should request that a credit bureau send you a credit report. Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, everyone is entitled to receive one free report every 12 months. You'll want to review each and every item on the report to make certain fraudsters aren't using your identity to borrow money in your name. You can request a free report at annualcreditreport.com.
If you have not been a victim but would like some protection, ask a credit bureau for a "security freeze," which puts a complete block on your credit report indefinitely — that is, until you ask that the freeze be lifted either permanently or temporarily. If you request a freeze with one credit bureau, you'll also need to contact the others, since a freeze is not shared between them.
If you intend to apply for credit during the freeze period, you must communicate with the credit bureaus to "lift" the freeze so that your legitimate creditors can access information. You can do this online.
Bureaus may charge a modest fee for a freeze based on the state you live in. In California, the fee is $10 ($5 if you are 65 or older); Connecticut charges $10; New York's initial request is free, and it is $5 for subsequent requests. There is no fee if you are an identity-theft victim and there is no cost to remove a freeze.
You can find a list of all states and fees charged on the TransUnion website (go to http://tinyurl.com/lok92ze and click on "Credit Freeze Fees")
You also may consider signing up for monitoring services with one of the credit bureaus. For example, TransUnion provides monitoring for $14.95 a month, which includes identity-theft insurance covering certain expenses during the time you take corrective action as a result of identity theft. According to their websites, Equifax charges $16.95 a month, and Experian charges $15.95.
Another step is to opt out of credit offers based on your credit record. You can do that by going online to http://www.optoutprescreen.com or by calling 888-5-OPT-OUT (888-567-8688). You can choose to opt out for five years or permanently.
You can opt out of mail and telephone lists produced by the Direct Marketing Association by calling 212-768-7277, ext. 1888.
More than 16.6 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2012, up from 11.7 million during the three-year period between 2006 and 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
More recent statistics can be found in Victims of Identity Theft, 2012, a National Crime Victimization Survey done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at http://tinyurl.com/knq64aj The vast majority (85 percent) of identity theft involved the fraudulent use of existing account information, such as credit-card or bank-account information.
Julie Jason, JD, LLM, a personal money manager (Jackson, Grant of Stamford, Conn.) and award-winning author, welcomes your questions/comments (firstname.lastname@example.org).