(BPT) - For many Americans, recent high-profile retail data breaches have been a wake-up call. Even those who never did business with the breached retailers might have found themselves wondering what they can or should do about data breach risks. While you can’t prevent a breach from occurring or even ensure you’re never caught in one, you can still do a number of things to help better protect yourself from one of the most serious potential consequences of a breach – identity theft.
“Awareness and vigilance are the best protections against identity theft,” says Scott Mitic, Senior Vice President, Equifax Personal Solutions. “Recognizing the potential signs of identity theft and monitoring credit on an on-going basis can help consumers minimize the impact of identity theft if their personal information is ever compromised in a data breach.”
Data breach incidents increased approximately 30 percent in 2013, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. In all, 619 reported breaches exposed more than 57.8 million records, putting the personal information of millions of Americans potentially at risk. Identity theft is one of the most damaging threats to data breach victims.
A data breach occurs when criminals intentionally attack a company’s data systems with the intent to steal information. A breach can also occur through mistakes – for example, if an employee has company data containing personal information regarding its customers and/or employees on a laptop that is lost or stolen. When a breach occurs, various consumer protection laws may require the breached company to notify anyone whose information was actually or potentially compromised.
“Even with data breach laws and regulations in place, consumers should take proactive steps to help better protect themselves,” Mitic says.
* Always secure your personal information – both hard copies and digital.
* Never carry your Social Security card or number in your purse or wallet unless absolutely necessary.
* Use strong, unique passwords for your online activities, especially for banking, medical and financial accounts.
* Check your credit report regularly. If fraud occurs, your credit report could be one of the first places where evidence of identity theft or compromise appears. You can request a free credit report annually from each of the three national credit reporting agencies (CRAs) at www.AnnualCreditReport.com, or you can purchase your credit report directly from a CRA.
* File your tax return promptly. Federal income tax fraud is a growing problem and the longer you wait to file, the more time a criminal has to file a fraudulent return in your name.
* Learn more about identity theft through sources offering helpful information at no cost, including the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft website and the Identity Theft Resource Center website.
* Consider signing up for a credit monitoring and identity protection product, offered by companies like Equifax.
If a company notifies you that your information has been or may have been compromised in a data breach, act quickly. If the company offers you free credit monitoring, accept it. If it is not offered, ask for it. Consider signing up for credit monitoring on your own if the breached company won’t provide it for you. Consider closing any accounts associated with the breached company.
Additional steps should include:
* Obtain a copy of your credit report via www.AnnualCreditReport.com and review all information to make sure it’s accurate. Look for new accounts you don’t recognize or applications for new credit you didn’t make. Dispute incorrect information with the credit agency reporting the questionable information. Ask for a fraud alert to be placed on your credit file; this will alert lenders they need to verify your identify for any new credit request made in your name.
* Carefully review all your credit, bank account and medical billing statements and keep an eye out for suspicious activity. Contact the service provider immediately if you find unauthorized charges.
* Stay vigilant. Identity theft can occur up to a year – or longer – following a data breach. Continue to monitor your credit report and bank statements, and watch for common identity theft signs, such as failure to receive monthly bills or other mail, being denied credit or offered credit at a high interest rate, and calls or letters from debt collectors for accounts you didn’t open.
“If you think you’re a victim of identity theft, immediately contact the police, and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission,” says Mitic. “Acting quickly after a data breach may help ensure you catch any resulting fraud or identity theft sooner, and help to mitigate any potential damage.”