As data breaches increase, here's how to cut your identity fraud risk
Dark web scans, free credit reports, virtual numbers can ease your anxiety
To counter data breaches that have become a new normal, card issuers and credit bureaus now offer free tools to better monitor your personal and credit information.
While there’s no surefire way to avoid a data breach (Macy’s reported in July that hackers had targeted customers’ credit information), you can make yourself less vulnerable to identity theft.
Here’s a quick look at the expanding reach of data breaches – and what you can do now to protect your vital information.
Data breaches expose millions of records
If you’re anxious about data breaches, there are millions of reasons to justify that fear. Consider these recent statistics tracking bank and other information exposed so far in 2018.
More than 1.7 million banking, credit or financial records were compromised in a data breach at some point in 2018, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. That figure is as of July 2, 2018.
The amount of stolen bank data being sold on the dark web has more than doubled since last year, according to new data by the cybersecurity firm IntSights.
It’s not just banking and financial information that is exposed in data breaches. An estimated 15.2 million business records, nearly 1.6 million military and government records and 3.2 million health care records have been breached, according to the ITRC.
And that’s just this year. It’s been nearly a year since the Equifax data breach exposed the data of 147.9 million U.S. consumers.
See related: 10 things you should know about identity theft
What you can do to protect your personal info
As the number of consumers affected by a data breach continues to rise, financial services providers now offer a growing number of security-related services to help people better monitor their information and feel more in control of it.
Free dark web scans for Social Security numbers
Capital One announced in July that it’s adding data security features to its free CreditWise credit tracking tools. What’s new: Text alerts that let you know if your Social Security number is being sold on the dark web and monitoring of your Experian and TransUnion credit reports to alert you if any new accounts have been opened in your name.
Discover was the first card issuer to offer free Social Security number alerts and dark web scanning in 2017. Discover’s security tools are available only to Discover customers, though.
Experian, one of the big three credit bureaus, also now offers a free dark web scan that searches for your Social Security number, email address or phone number.
If your information pops up on web pages that it shouldn’t, Experian, Capital One and Discover detail what you should do next.
It's easier to get free credit reports now
For years, consumers have been able to get one free copy of their credit reports from all three major credit bureaus once every 12 months through annualcreditreport.com, but if you wanted to keep monitoring your reports through the year, you typically had to pay for it.
Now, a growing number of websites, including CreditCards.com, offer free credit reports so you can continuously monitor your reports for unauthorized accounts or errors.
Coming soon: Free credit freezes
All three credit bureaus will offer free credit freezes in coming weeks, as a result of legislation passed in the wake of the Equifax breach.
Currently, the cost of a credit freeze varies by state. A credit freeze lets consumers lock down their credit, preventing new accounts from being opened, which is an especially useful tool in cases where identity theft has been detected or is suspected.
The new law requires freezes, when set up electronically, to be placed within one day and removed within an hour of the consumer’s request.
The big three credit bureaus expect to meet the requirements by the deadline of Sept. 21.
Virtual numbers can cut your fraud risk online
When you shop online, you can use virtual numbers, disposable credit and debit card numbers that mask your card details. Bank of America, Citi and Capital One offer these, and how virtual numbers work varies among card issuers.
For example, you can set them up for a one-time online purchase, for online purchases made within a window of time or designate one number for each online retailer where you shop.
Another option to reduce your chance of ID theft: Use cash
Though you will be losing out on credit card rewards, sticking with cash for in-person transactions reduces to zero the chance a fraudster can steal your personal information (such as at a skimmer at a gas station or ATM).
You also might choose to only use credit cards when the retailer accepts chip cards (which most do now) or for online transactions. Dipping your chip credit or debit card cuts the fraud risk associated with swiping the magnetic stripe on your card.
Take steps now to protect your identity and card info
Data breaches have become so widespread and affected so many organizations – including those you can’t avoid, such as hospitals and credit reporting agencies – it’s practically impossible to shield your information completely.
But you can take some steps to reduce your risk of identity theft.
The free dark web scanning and free credit report services are a boon to wary (and weary from the flood of data breaches in the news) consumers since they allow people to keep tabs on their information without paying a big fee or spending a lot of time on it.
If you haven’t already, consider signing up for a free monitoring service, such as Capital One’s CreditWise or Discover’s Social Security number alerts (if you are a Discover customer). These services notify you if an account has been opened in your name.
Also check your credit reports regularly and freeze them immediately if you see evidence your identity has been stolen. Once your accounts are frozen, fraudsters won’t be able open any more accounts in your name.
Lastly, practice good password hygiene by regularly changing your passwords and never using the same password twice.
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