Last September the personal information of as many as 143 million people was compromised in a data breach affecting the credit reporting firm Equifax, leaving those individuals at risk of identity theft. Of those users, 209,000 had their credit card numbers stolen, and very few of their owners have checked their credit scores since.
The Equifax controversy and similar data breaches have made it increasingly likely that you or someone you know has had their identity stolen – it’s estimated that almost a billion records have been poached in the last 10 years. And while there's nothing you can do to prevent an attack on a company that holds your financial and other sensitive data, there are some simple precautionary steps that you can take to ensure your financial security.
The easiest way to safeguard yourself against fraud is by limiting the number of accounts that your credit card or social security number are attached to. But how do you find out if you’ve already been subject to identity theft? Well, we'd suggest taking a look at the pointers we’ve listed below.
1. Check your bank account and credit card statements
As soon as you suspect that your personal information may have been compromised, go online and your bank and credit card statements. If you see any suspicious activity, contact the bank or credit card company and report it immediately.
Look out for transactions you don't recall making, or amounts that seem unusual. It may be worth contacting the vendor and disputing the charge with them – they may have more specific information for if you need to file a police report. You’ll also want to immediately change your password and, if possible, set up two-factor authentication to enhance the security of your accounts.
It’s likely that after you bring any suspicious activity to the attention of your bank they'll send you a new debit or credit card to replace your compromised one. New payment cards in hand, be sure to switch over everything from your Netflix account to your gym membership to use the new payment method.
2. Run a free credit report
The major credit reporting companies, including Experian and the aforementioned Equifax, offer free credit checks, and in the US you’re entitled to one every 12 months. Financial experts recommend that you run a credit report every four months, however, so you may have to incur some fees to protect yourself from threats – but you might consider it a small price to pay compared to the inconvenience and loss it could save you.
If your credit score seems questionably low or inaccurate, it’s possible that your identity has been stolen. If that’s the case, get in contact with the credit bureau and let them know exactly what information you think is incorrect on your credit score.
Then, in writing, submit a formal dispute – complete with evidence – stating that your credit score is incorrect. In many cases you’ll be able to get a free credit report from the bureau directly, so definitely take them up on that if it’s offered to you. Otherwise, reach out to the bureau of your choice and enquire about that service yourself.
Apply for a credit card
One way to determine if you're the victim of identity theft is by applying for a credit card. If your application is approved it’s still possible that your identity has been stolen, but that the perpetrator hasn’t done enough damage to negatively impact your credit score yet, so follow the other measures outlined here too. And if your application is rejected, that should raise some eyebrows if you otherwise have good credit.
You may want to reach out to the credit card company and find out why your application was rejected, although if you’ve run a credit report you should already know the answer. You’ll want to make sure, though, that you didn’t make any mistakes on the credit card application, so retrace your steps and try again – in some cases the credit card application will be approved the second time around.
If you're able to obtain a credit card but don't intend to use it, either contact the company to have its shipment cancelled or destroy it upon receiving it, and don't activate it if that's required. Following a failed application, should you be unclear as to the reason your card was rejected, file a police report specifically setting out the reasons for your concern – there are few explanations outside of identity theft to explain why a person with good credit wouldn’t be able to get a credit card.
Pay attention to your email and post
If you’re the type of person who pays all of their bills online, relying on digital reminders to let you know when a payment is due, you might be quick to toss any physical bills you receive in the trash. Likewise, it’s common to write off your bills as junk mail when they’re sitting in your inbox. If that’s your routine, change it. Be conscious of the emails and physical bills that you receive and, more importantly, those you don’t receive.
If someone steals your identity you might start seeing a lot less mail – ‘e’ or otherwise – because the thief is having it delivered to a different address. There’s a lot to lose when someone gets hold of your mail, so make sure you get in touch with anyone you should be getting mail from, but aren't, and verify your addresses, both residential and email.
On the contrary, if you start receiving mail that doesn’t belong to you, that could also be an early warning sign of fraud. Perhaps the identity thief wasn’t so clever when applying for a credit card in your name, leading to mail showing up that was intended for a fictionalized version of you rather than the actual you. This should raise some concerns, which you should be able to resolve by reporting it to the credit card company that it came from.