The recent data breach at Equifax credit bureau rattled a lot of people. 143 million, to be exact. Exposed information included names, Social Security numbers, birthdays, addresses – and even some driver’s license and credit card numbers.
Nothing is foolproof in protecting your personal information, but you can make it harder for would-be thieves. Taking precautions is especially important for older adults. Criminals believe that seniors are more financially stable, have better credit, and typically don’t open new lines of credit or monitor their credit reports, making them vulnerable.
What can you do?
Monitor credit regularly. You can pay for a service to do this for you, or you can do it yourself. Equifax offers free monitoring for one year only. Alternatively, you can pull your own credit reports for free annually from each of the three agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You can learn more by clicking here.
Freeze credit. This option prevents the credit bureaus from releasing your report to anyone except companies where you are already a customer. Frozen credit makes it harder for thieves to open accounts in your name. You can unfreeze your credit at any time if you need to apply for a loan or credit card. Expect to pay about $10 at each agency to freeze your credit. In Kentucky, the freeze is good for seven years, at which point you’ll have to renew it.
Sign up for fraud alerts. Use this option if you have been a victim of identity theft. The agencies offer an initial 90-day security alert, but if you want a seven-year alert, then you’ll need proof of identity, along with a police report or other documents regarding the theft. More information is available at each credit bureau’s website.
Don’t share personal information by phone or e-mail. AARP reported earlier this summer about callers posing as employees of the Social Security Administration and telling seniors that they are due a cost-of-living increase. Once they scam seniors out of personal information, they can then call Social Security to change direct deposits. The Social Security Administration says it occasionally calls citizens, but does not ask for personal information over the phone. If you have doubts about a call you receive, you can call Social Security toll-free at 1-800-772-1213 (1-800-325-0778 for hearing impaired). Similarly, do not give information to callers or e-mailers saying they are from the IRS. The IRS will always contact you via U.S. mail; they do not call or e-mail you.
Other steps you can take include shredding documents with personal information, using secure wi-fi (not public places such as the library or coffee shops) for shopping and banking, and not entering sensitive data on unverified, unsecure website. For example, before you enter credit card information on a website, make sure you see an icon of a green lock and “https” in the website address at the top of the browser window.
If you are caring for an older adult, be sure to review precautions with them regularly. Even if you can’t eliminate the possibility of identity theft, you can reduce your risk with vigilance.