As U.S. consumers head into the shopping season – the weather is getting cooler, and the holidays are getting closer – it is a good idea to take extra precautions to protect bank accounts, credit cards and personal identity.
Data breaches, such as the ones that affected Kmart and The Home Depot shoppers in September of 2014, eBay buyers earlier in the summer and Target customers at the end of 2013, can wreak havoc on individuals and their financial privacy and safety. The most recent attacks at Kmart and The Home Depot involved card-payment systems.
According to a story on ABCNews.com, Sears Holding Co. said Kmart was able to remove the computer malware from its systems.
“Sears said Kmart is working with federal law enforcement authorities and banking partners as it investigates the breach,” the story said. “It is also deploying software to protect customers’ information.”
The Home Depot’s Web site said the problem has been solved.
“Today, we are able to tell you that the malware used in the recent breach has been eliminated from our U.S. and Canadian networks,” the Web site states. “We also want you to know that we have completed a major payment security project that provides enhanced encryption of payment card data at point of sale in our U.S. stores, offering significant new protection for customers.”
When a breach occurs and nabs consumers in its nefarious web, three steps should be taken immediately. First, a call to one of the three national credit-reporting companies should be placed for the purpose of initiating a fraud alert. The company called is required to share the information with the other two companies.
“An initial fraud alert can make it harder for an identity thief to open more accounts in your name,” according to the Federal Trade Commission. “The alert lasts 90 days but you can renew it.”
The second step entails requesting a free credit report not only from the company with which the alert was issued but also the other two. Upon reviewing the reports, if you know which asset has been defrauded, contact that company and explain the situation. The FTC suggests following up in writing.
“Send your letters by certified mail; ask for a return receipt,” according to the agency. “That creates a record of your communications.”
Last but not least, create an identity-theft report. Such a report will be your safeguard from debt collectors. You can use it to obtain information about assets that identity thieves have hacked; have fraudulent information removed from your credit report and an extended fraud alert added to it; and, as the victim, stop debt collectors from coming after you.
Some consumers opt for a credit / security freeze. The freeze restricts access to your credit report, thereby making it more challenging for identity thieves to create new accounts using your information.
“That’s because most creditors need to see your credit report before they approve a new account,” the FTC explains. “If they can’t see your file, they may not extend the credit.”
By law, consumers are eligible to receive a copy of their credit reports for free every year from each of the three companies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. For more information, visit Annual Credit Report.com.
There are other ways you can be offensive against identity theft, an annoying reality that has become commonplace as computer criminals get more technologically savvy. Here are some tips:
- Change your passwords with regularity.
- Leave important cards, such as Social Security, Medicare and credit / debit cards you don’t need to have with you, at home in a safe place.
- Shred all documents, including receipts, that contain sensitive information.
If you don’t have a locked mailbox, it is safer to deposit your outgoing mail at the post office and remove your incoming mail as soon as possible.
Be aware of phishing scams, which mostly come in the form of lengthy email messages asking for your address, bank-account number and other private data.
For more information, visit the FTC’s Identity Theft Web site.