How Can I Protect Myself From Identity Theft?

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Identify Theft is a growing issue that can have a serious financial impact.  Nearly 60 million Americans have been affected by identity theft according to a 2018 online Harris Poll.  That same survey indicates more than 16 million Americans experienced identify theft in 2017 with $16.8 billion stolen.  This crime is becoming more common due to data breaches when a company or organization’s customer records, which may include full names, Social Security numbers, and other personal information, are accessed fraudulently.

Large breaches of personal information have been reported. For example, multiple technology news outlets reported that a massive data breach known as “Collection #1” was released to hacker channels on January 17, 2019. The source is unknown but the impact is great – 2.6 billion email address/password records for an unknown list of websites. Of those, 773 million are unique email addresses along with 21 million passwords. Technology security experts have determined that the data is legitimate, albeit out-of-date in some cases.


What does this mean for me? 

It is possible that your personal email address, work, or both are impacted. This does not necessarily mean that your data has been used, but as a precaution we advise you to change all of your public website passwords as soon as possible. This includes everything from bank passwords, membership sites, shopping sites, and beyond.  


How Can I Find Out if I’m at Risk?

You can find out if your email addresses were involved in this breach as well as others at the following link:


How Can I Change My Passwords Without Using the Same Password for Each Website?

Many people use the same password for multiple websites and programs.  This presents a large security threat because if hackers obtain access to one of your usernames and passwords they’ll try using it on hundreds of other websites.  Creating and remembering unique passwords can be a challenge but you can use proven password management programs such as Last Pass, 1Password, Keeper, and Dashlane.  These programs are installed on your computer and phone and keep a master list of your passwords.  They allow you to create strong passwords and remember them.


What Steps Can I Take to Protect Myself?

There are three main options available to consumers to protect themselves from identity theft.  They are: credit monitoring, lock your credit, and freeze your credit.  In addition, consumers can access their credit report from each credit bureau for free each year to ensure the information is correct.

Credit monitoring services are one of the first things many people think of when they want to protect their identity.  These services monitor your credit score and social security number for potential identity theft.  If unusual activity is observed they notify if you.  They are available for a monthly or annual fee.  One drawback to these services is that they notify you after something unusual has already occurred.  While it is helpful to know if a fraudster attempts to use your social security number it doesn’t prevent them from opening an account.  In addition, credit monitoring requires a monthly fee and doesn’t offer a lock or freeze.  Examples include Identify Force, LifeLock, ID Watchdog.  More information on credit monitoring can be found here:

 A free option for credit monitoring is for consumers to check their own credit report.  Consumers are entitled to one free credit report from each of the credit bureaus.  They can access the by visiting (the only authorized website for free credit reports) or call 877-322-8228.  I like scheduling this on my calendar.  I create a reminder to contact one credit bureau every four months and rotate among the three major bureaus.  For example, I’ll create a reminder to contact Experian each January; Equifax each May, and TransUnion each September.  With this system you can monitor your credit every four months for free and identify and correct an inconsistencies or fraudulent activity.

 When you lock your credit you engage the credit bureaus  to prevent them from releasing information about your credit history to creditors.  They usually do this quickly (often within 48 hours).  You then unlock your credit history when you apply for credit.  Some credit bureaus charge a fee and others offer it for free.  The process is not governed by law.

 A more secure option is to freeze your credit. This is a free process that each credit bureau supports and is governed by law.  When you freeze your credit the credit bureau will not release your credit history unless you unfreeze it.  This allows you to prohibit access to your credit history for free.  The downside is that you’ll need to unfreeze your credit when you apply for a credit card, car loan, or other event that requires your personal credit history for verification.  It can take longer, sometimes up to five days, to unfreeze your credit history.  Personally, I froze my credit a few years ago.  I find the peace of mind far outweighs the hassle of unfreezing it.  More information on freezing your credit is here:


How Can I Get Help If My Identity Is Stolen?

The process of recovering your identity after a fraudster uses it illegally can be time-consuming and frustrating.  The amount of time it takes to correct and recover from identity theft depends on the type of identity theft that occurred.  Identifying a fraudulent transaction is often a quicker process than if an identity was used to open multiple accounts, get medical care, apply for a job, or rent an apartment.  In those cases in can take more than 40 hours over six months to sort out the fraud.  Consumers can visit, a Federal website, to learn about the appropriate steps to take to deal with identity theft and create a custom recovery plan based on the type of theft that occurred.


How Can I Get Help Restoring My Identity?

In addition to taking steps to prevent identity theft we recommend consumers consider identity theft restoration services.  These services use a limited power of attorney and your authorization to contact credit bureaus and lenders, clear up false records, and contact law enforcement.  Consumers can often add this service to their home insurance by contacting their provider and asking what is covered if identity theft occurs.  Another option is to utilize a credit monitoring and identify theft protection service like those mentioned above.  Two companies, Kroll and ID Watchdog, offer services to new clients to address previous identity theft issues without additional fees.

 Protecting your information and limiting the risk of identity theft is a new and unwelcome reality.  Your information may be subject to threats but there are multiple steps you can take to protect yourself and your family and get help if identity theft has occurred.

Michelle Walters