Your credit card, Social Security numbers: Are they online?
A new free online tool can help consumers find out if their Social Security and credit card numbers are available publicly on the Internet. Using TrustedID's StolenIDSearch.com, consumers can search a limited database that includes 2.3 million pieces of information.
Social security numbers, unlike credit card numbers, are widely exposed through public documents. While it is fairly easy to get a new credit card in the case of loss or theft, it is much tougher to receive a new Social Security number. In fact, individuals are limited to three replacements of their paper Social Security card each year and 10 over their lifetime.
Why are Social Security numbers so easily accessible? One reason is the frequency with which they are used. Companies that provide a service first and bill you later (such as utilities and cellphone providers) ask for a Social Security number in order to check your credit report to ensure you are reliable borrower.
Meanwhile, every doctor and dentist's office in the U.S. has a record of patient's Social Security numbers -- the security of which is up for debate. And, up until 2004, states were allowed to include Social Security numbers on drivers' licenses, while before 2001 states could sell lists with those numbers.
Separately, thieves may obtain Social Security and credit card numbers through the use of "key logging" software that is secretly installed on computers to record what is typed, as well as through phishing schemes that trick consumers into entering personal information onto fake websites that are designed to look like those of a bank or credit card issuer.
Luckily, recent developments are working in consumers' favor. States and counties have started to remove images of documents from their websites that include Social Security numbers, or to block out the numbers themselves.
New York is among four states that have taken down links to images of public documents containing Social Security numbers, while the Texas attorney general on Feb. 21, 2007, issued a legal opinion that county clerks could be committing a crime by revealing Social Security numbers online.
TrustedID has assembled a database of compromised Social Security and credit card numbers that could be bought or traded online. While its StolenIDSearch.com tool is free, TrustedID sells services to consumers that provide them with greater control over who views their credit reports.
For consumers that find their data has been compromised, ordering a copy of their credit report from three main credit bureaus is the first step. CreditCards.com visitors should use http://www.creditcards.com/free-credit-report.php to request a credit report from credit bureaus Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
Should you turn up any unexplained accounts on your credit report, alert the credit bureaus, credit card issuers and merchants involved. You can also let the Federal Trade Commission and local law enforcement know, and you may decide to freeze your credit to block anyone from opening new accounts in your name.
But all consumers, regardless of whether their Social Security and credit card information is floating in cyberspace, should request copies of their credit reports each year. Also, computer users should install anti-virus and anti-spyware software on their PCs and make sure it stays updated.
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