Dealing With the Dreaded "Information Breach" Letter
Catalogue, coupons, electric bill, letter from your aunt... So far, so good. And then you see it: the ominous looking envelope with an unfamiliar return address. You open it to find that your personal information may have been compromised because of a security issue experienced by an organization or business storing your vital details.
Now what do you do? Taking the following steps will help you keep a crack in security from unleashing a flood of problems.
Make sure the letter - or email or call - is legit
It sounds crazy that there would be scams about scams, but there are. Identity thieves often contact people and tell them that their information has been stolen and that they need a confirmation of things like name, social security number, credit card number, etc. NEVER provide this kind of information to someone making unsolicited contact with you. Instead, call the company or organization that has contacted you - at a number you know to be accurate - and ask if the previous contact actually came from them.
If you're offered credit monitoring, take it
The responsible company or organization will often offer you a credit monitoring service to help you keep watch on your accounts. Take advantage of this to gain as many looks at your credit reports as possible. However, just remember to confirm with the company that contacted you about the breach to confirm which credit monitoring service they are offering and that it is free.
Close any accounts that may have been compromised because of the security issue
If your financial information is floating around unsecured, it's best to switch out your credit cards or checking brokerage accounts for new ones with the same provider so that potential identity thieves aren't able to use them. This is also a good time to change passwords on any accounts - including email - that might have been exposed to criminals.
Secure your credit reports
Call the three credit bureaus at the numbers below to put a fraud alert on your report:
The fraud alert will stay on your credit report for 90 days. It's important to remember that a fraud alert is just that, an "alert" notification that is put on your credit report. If you want to completely close off access to your credit reports so that only you can allow access to them, put a security freeze on your credit files. Call the numbers listed above to do this.
Anyone who believes they may have been a victim of identity theft is entitled to a free copy of each of their three credit reports, so ask about receiving your copy when you make the call to add the fraud alert or security freeze. Everyone is also entitled to separate reports from each of the three bureaus once per year at www.annualcreditreport.com, so you can stagger these reports and get one once every four months after being contacted about the security problem. Pay special attention to any account information you don't recognize on the credit reports. If you spot anything like this, contact the creditor right away.
Keep an eye out for suspicious activity
It's always a good idea to check your checking or credit card accounts closely for strange charges, but this is especially important in the weeks following notice of an information security issue. Other warning signs to watch for include failing to get bills you regularly receive in the mail, receiving credit cards you didn't apply for, and receiving calls or letters from collections agencies for accounts you don't recognize. If any of these things happen, check your credit reports immediately and file a police report.
Unfortunately, your personal information can be traded among identity thieves for years after the initial breach took place. So monitor your accounts for any unusual charges and access your credit reports as often as possible. Remember, you can check your own reports as many times as you want without it ever impacting your FICO credit score.
There's no doubt that it's a downer learning your information might be up for grabs. But you may find that the experience actually makes you much more prepared to protect your personal information against any kind of threats going forward.