With the recent Equifax hack making headlines everywhere, savvy consumers are wondering what they can do to stay safe. The list of data stolen from Equifax is dizzying—it includes names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, driver’s license numbers, credit card numbers and other sensitive documents. Long story short, there’s plenty of available ammo for a thief to max out your credit cards or rack up speeding tickets under your name—potentially causing serious damage to your credit profile and beyond.
While Equifax might be making the news today, identity theft impacts many Americans on a regular basis. In fact, about 15 million Americans were victims of financial fraud committed by identity thieves in 2016.
Let’s cover how to protect yourself from identity theft and credit card fraud, including many things you can do on your own for free—no costly credit-monitoring services required.
How to protect yourself from identity theft and credit card fraud: Proactive measures
There are several steps you can take on a regular basis to help prevent identity theft and credit card fraud, including:
- Be smart about physical security. Shred sensitive documents. Keep track of your electronics—laptops, thumb drives and smartphones can be easily stolen. Plus, someone can look over your shoulder while you’re entering a credit card number in a public place.
- Be vigilant about digital security, too. Regularly change logins, passwords and PINs. Don’t store your credit card number anywhere online. Use judgment about entering sensitive information on unsecure networks or public Wi-Fi. Be wary of suspicious emails, websites and phone calls.
- Consider filing your taxes early. If someone steals your Social Security number, they might file a tax return claiming a fraudulent refund—and you wouldn’t know until you file your taxes and find out a return has already been submitted using your Social Security number.
How to protect yourself from identity theft and credit card fraud: Catching it early
Knowing about suspicious activity and responding as quickly as possible can help you limit the potential damage.
- Check your credit reports regularly. You’re entitled to a free report from each of the three major reporting bureaus—Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—once every twelve months. Be on the lookout for accounts or transactions that you don’t recognize, like a new hard inquiry or an unfamiliar late payment.
- Check your credit score, too. A sudden drop in your credit score could indicate fraudulent activity. There are several ways to check your credit score(s) for free, including with RISE financial wellness tools.
- Review your bank and credit card transactions regularly—don’t just pay the balance blindly.
How to protect yourself from identity theft and credit card fraud: If you’re a victim
If someone is misusing your personal information to open new accounts or make purchases, consider taking these steps:
- Report identity theft and get help at IdentityTheft.gov. Check out the Identity Theft Resource Center, too, a non-profit organization sponsored by entities like Experian and the US Department of Justice. You might also choose to file a report with your local police department.
- If you’re experiencing fraudulent charges on a debit or credit card, call the issuer’s fraud department right away to cancel the card.
- Place a credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) on your credit reports from each of the three bureaus. A credit freeze makes it more difficult for thieves to open a new account in your name by restricting access to your credit report. While a freeze makes it hard for a criminal to open a new account, it also means you’ll have to take a few extra steps next time you open a new account that requires a credit check—like a new credit card or mortgage.
- If you don’t want to pursue a credit freeze, consider a fraud alert. Fraud alerts mean lenders can still check your credit, but will need to take extra identity-verification steps first. You’ll be notified anytime there is an attempt to check your credit.
- Remember, though, that a freeze or fraud alert won’t prevent a thief from running up balances on your existing lines of credit—so keep up the careful monitoring. You can also enact a credit freeze or fraud alert even if you aren’t a currently victim, but want to be extra careful about potential fraud.
RISE is in your corner. Learn more about our tools to help you build good credit, learn new money habits and create a better financial future.