How can I protect my Social Security number?

Reporters have spilled gallons of ink writing about the likelihood that people like you and me will have to deal with the damaging effects of identity theft related to the Equifax breach.

Even more has been said about what that damage might look like: how thieves will obtain our SSNs, what they might use our identities to open up or steal, and how these activities might follow us into the future and erode our financial health.

Now that we’ve been blindsided with the news that our SSNs are exposed–and had been for MONTHS before we were made aware–the big question is how and to what extent can we protect ourselves?

Assume you are part of the breach–because you probably are.

Original estimates put the amount of people affected at 143 million, but just days ago, Equifax revealed another 2.5 million people may have also been compromised.

With this kind of volume, it’s a mistake to think your information wasn’t part of the compromise. Around half of the people in the United States are affected–whether or not you should be prepared for credit fraud ultimately boils down to a coin toss.

What isn’t a question is protecting yourself now–before something happens–is far more effective and easier than waiting until after you’ve discovered fraudulent activity.

So, assume you’ve been compromised. Take steps right now to shield yourself and you’ll hopefully spare yourself a ton of frustration and anxiety later.

What you can do before your identity is stolen.

Get credit monitoring.  Usually for a small monthly fee, there are several credit monitoring services available to consumers. These agencies will routinely review your credit report with an eye toward unusual changes or inconsistencies that may be flags for fraudulent activity. You will be notified about new accounts opened in your name, changes to existing account information, and any hard credit checks that might indicate someone attempting to get a loan, a credit card, or some other kind of service.

Keep in mind credit monitoring will not protect you from actual theft. It simply helps to keep you abreast of activity on report so you can act quickly if something isn’t right. The sooner you act, the better your ability to reverse and prevent further damage.

To make amends for the breach, Equifax is currently offering 12 months of free credit monitoring.

Freeze your credit.  For around $10, you can contact each of the Big Three credit reporting bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, Experian) and request a credit freeze. Also called a security freeze, this makes things substantially harder for an identity thief and is one of the best tools in your arsenal to prevent theft.

A credit freeze locks access to your credit report. Under a freeze, lenders and other companies that need to perform credit checks before offering services are blocked from pulling your report, and therefore unable to issue credit in many cases. This could block a thief from obtaining a loan or credit card in your name.

But credit freezes aren’t totally perfect. They won’t stop a thief from editing existing or using existing accounts. And they don’t block everyone from accessing your report (if you’ve already worked with an institution, they may be excluded from the freeze).

If you’re planning on applying for a new utility service, a mortgage, a car loan, a new apartment, or new job, a credit freeze can also block people you want to access your report. So unless you have no plans to make life moves that involve credit checks, a credit freeze may not be an option.

If you do need to lift a credit freeze, be aware that thawing your credit can sometimes be a lengthy process. In the event of an emergency purchase for which you may need credit quickly, a credit thaw could do as much harm as good.

Credit freezes do not negatively affect your credit score.

Place an initial fraud alert on your account.  Like a credit freeze, placing a fraud alert on your account can be done with any of the Big Three credit bureaus. The Fair Credit Reporting Act allows consumers to put a fraud alert on their account for free.

A fraud alert doesn’t lock access to your report, but rather flags it as at risk for fraudulent activity for any creditors pulling your report. These creditors will handle that report with increased scrutiny, taking extra measures to verify your identity.

While it doesn’t prevent someone from opening an account in your name, it does put your report under a magnifying glass should someone try. A thief is much more likely to be caught when your report is flagged in this way.

There are three kinds of fraud alerts. If you are thinking of requesting a fraud alert before you’ve been victimized–an “initial” fraud alert–the duration is 90 days.

Seniors are particularly at risk.

We’ve talked a little bit about what can happen if an identity thief decides to try and collect your Social Security benefits–not only is it very possible, but it’s incredibly easy to do with just a few pieces of basic information and your SSN.

But any attempt on the identity and financial information of seniors deals double damage. Not only do seniors have to deal with all of the same repercussions as younger Americans, but in many cases, they also won’t have the means or ability to repair or protect their credit.

An adult on a fixed, small income has to make a big sacrifice to pay for the services required to fix the damage or prevent the theft in the first place. And once the damage is done, the aftermath can hit a senior much harder–they may have no way to keep themselves afloat or walk back what was done.

And sadly, identity thieves are fond of targeting seniors.  Retirees offer more opportunities to cash in: thieves can take advantage of Social Security payments, retirement savings accounts flush with cash, and the fact that many seniors aren’t making big financial decisions that would prompt them to check their credit reports regularly.

Be very vigilant. At the very least, take advantage of your free credit report per year to keep track of your data on your own. And be prepared to act quickly if you see something you shouldn’t.

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