SAN JOSE, Calif. - Consumer advocates have some advice for the 26.5 million veterans whose personal information was stolen from the home of a Veterans Affairs employee: Don't panic.
Identity theft may be a growing problem that affected 9.3 million Americans last year, according to Javelin Strategy and Research. But consumer advocates say a few precautions can lessen the chances of becoming a victim, even for people whose personal information has been stolen.
The first thing to do if you think your Social Security number, birth date or other sensitive data has fallen into the wrong hands is to place an initial fraud alert on your credit reports. There are three major credit reporting agencies, but a call to one - for instance, Equifax at 800-525-6285 - will ensure the other two are notified.
A fraud alert entitles you to a free copy of your credit report from each of the three companies. Order one from each and scrutinize them carefully for accounts you didn't open or debts you don't recognize. Also, make sure that information such as your Social Security number and employer are correct on each report.
If you discover accounts or transactions you didn't authorize, call and speak with someone in the fraud department of each company involved. Keep a log of each person contacted, along with the date, time and topics discussed on each call.
An initial fraud alert also requires businesses to take additional steps to confirm your identity before issuing loans or opening accounts in your name. Be prepared for loan and credit card applications to take slightly longer to be processed.
It's important to understand that an initial fraud alert, as the name implies, is only a temporary fix. That's because it remains in effect for only 90 days. To prevent becoming a victim after the three months are up, you'll need to take additional steps.
Next, fill out an identity theft report with your local, state or federal law enforcement agency. It's unclear if the mere loss or theft of personal information constitutes identity theft, but filing a report may offer additional protections. The FTC makes an affidavit available at http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft/pdf/affidavit.pdf.
Ask each of the three credit reporting companies to place a freeze or extended alert on your account. Seventeen states have enacted laws that require the reporting companies to block access to your files in most instances. Check with the Consumers Union Web site or attorney general in your state to see if this is available where you live.
Even if your state doesn't offer this protection, ask Equifax, TransUnion and Experian to give you an extended alert anyway. This option will entitle you to two free credit reports per year, and it will also require the credit reporting companies to remove you from lists marketers use to send prescreened credit offers for five years.
To qualify for an extended alert, the reporting companies will require you to prove you've been the victim of identity theft, even though it is not always clear how the law defines a victim in this case. Be sure to include the FTC affidavit or other law enforcement report you filed. It is legal documentation that your personal identification has been stolen.
Finally, recognize that safeguarding your privacy is a never-ending task, even for people who have no reason to believe their personal information has been stolen. A little education and prevention, say consumer advocates, can go a long way.
"You need an ongoing vigilance," says Paul Stephens, a policy analyst with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego. "We want people to be proactive, to be vigilant, but we also don't want to have people panicking."
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