The Internet offers many conveniences and benefits. However, your computer can open the door to "cybercriminals" eager to steal your money, personal information and even your identity. When this happens, it can take months or even years to clear your name, credit history and online reputation.

According to the "2019 Identity Fraud Study" by Javelin, 14.4 million victims reported being a victim of identity theft in 2018. New accounts fraud due to identity theft alone resulted in $3.4 billion in losses. Mobile telephone account takeovers nearly doubled from 2017 to 2018. The silver lining, if there is one, is that 14.4 million victims is actually 5.66 percent (or 2 million reports) lower due to a concerted effort to battle credit card fraud. How can you stay safe? Here are some basic steps:

DETER :

  • DON'T

    • Give out your personal and financial information, especially your Social Security Number, over the Internet or telephone. Ask a business or physician why they need the information, and how they plan to use and secure it.

    • Click on links in unsolicited emails, even if it looks like it's coming from your bank or creditor.

    • Put your bill payments in your mailbox. Take your mail to the post office or blue USPS mailbox. Mail marauders will steal mail out of the mailbox at the end of your driveway.

    • Share (or overshare) on social media, as criminals mine that information for answers to challenge questions. Facebook games about guessing someone's favorite color, movie, pet, etc. are an easy source of information to criminals.

  • DO

    • Use anti-spyware (VPN) when using public wi-fi.

    • Use anti-virus and anti-malware software and make sure they are up to date.

    • Make sure your operating system is up to date.

    • Use non-obvious passphrases with numbers and symbols.

    • Lock your financial documents in a safe place at home and limit what you carry in your wallet or purse.

    • Shred financial documents, credit card offers, insurance forms, explanation of benefits and similar documents if you no longer need them.

DETECT :

  • Get a free credit report once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com and review for wrong information, like accounts you do not have.

  • Investigate unexplained credit denials, debt collection calls on debt not yours, unknown account statements or statements containing unauthorized charges or bank withdrawals.

  • Visit the post office if your junk or regular mail mysteriously slows down or stops all together as a criminal may be diverting your mail to hide fraud.

  • Call the credit card company directly to verify an emailed offer, or other alert in your email, by using a number you already have and not the one in the email, text or phone message.

  • Ask why the caller needs information from you - especially if it is information they should already have. Be wary of the need for account verification if you did not call them first.

  • Investigate if medical providers bill you for services you did not have, hospitals deny you treatment based on unknown allergies or procedures, health plans reject medical claims/coverage based on conditions/treatments you do not have or you are denied for a job or life insurance based on unknown risk profiles.

  • IRS notifies you that more than one tax return was filed in your name.

DEFEND :

  • If you suspect identity theft place a "Fraud Alert" or "Credit Freeze" on your credit reports.

  • File a police report as this may assist you in fighting debt collectors and extending fraud alerts.

  • Report the identity theft to the fraud department of each company where an unauthorized account was opened.

  • Report any financial losses to the FBI at ic3.gov.

  • Consider credit monitoring services which regularly review your credit for suspicious activity.

Fraud Alerts, Credit Freezes and Credit Locks

One of the best ways to protect your identity is to protect the information contained in your credit reports. Credit freezes and fraud alerts are two of the best tools you can use to help keep you credit files safe. Credit locks are a relatively new and untested product.

Fraud Alerts are free and can be used to help fight identity theft. When you place a fraud alert on your credit reports, creditors must try to verify your identity before extending new credit. When you request a fraud alert with one Credit Reporting Agency (CRA), that company should notify the others of the Big 3 CRAs. Fraud alerts are free and stay on your report for one year. While fraud alerts provide some protection, credit freezes give you greater control over your credit information.

Credit Freezes mean creditors can't review your credit report and consequently, won't approve credit applications submitted by you or, more importantly, identity thieves.

In the past, CRAs charged fees to freeze and unfreeze your reports. Under a new federal law, however, credit freeze services must now be offered for free. You can also freeze the credit of a minor child and any adult over whom you are a guardian or conservator. Once frozen, you will need to unfreeze your reports each time you apply for new credit. You do this by using the PIN you get when you request a credit freeze.

You must contact a major CRA (e.g., Equifax, Experian, Transunion, Innovis or National Consumer Telecom & Utility Exchange) directly to place a freeze. Under the new law, each credit bureau must set up a webpage for requesting fraud alerts and credit freezes. The Big 3 CRAs are:

  • Equifax: equifax.com; or call 1-800-685-1111

  • Experian: experian.com; or call 1-888-397-3742

  • Transunion: transunion.com; or call 1-888-909-8872

Also be aware of two CRAs that are fast rising as necessary players in this arena:

  • Innovis: innovis.com; or call 800-540-2505, and

  • National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange: nctue.com or call 866-349-5185.

Innovis doesn't provide a credit score, but companies use Innovis for identity verification. NCTUE is primarily used when you (or identity thieves) seek new accounts for cell phones (and related purchases), pay TV and utilities. According to Krebs on Security, a freeze with the Big 3 may not stop a thief from opening a telecom account in your name.

Credit Locks Like a freeze, a credit lock limits access to your credit file. Like a freeze, you place them with the CRAs. Unlike a freeze, locks may come with a monthly fee and do not have a PIN. You access the lock with an app and simply toggle the lock on and off as desired. Also unlike a freeze or fraud alert, there are no regulatory legal protections in place for credit lock consumers. Instead, it is merely an agreement between you and the CRA. The Federal Trade Commission warns that consumers should investigate the contractual provisions to make sure they are comfortable with the protections promised.

For more information about this or other consumer issues, call the Montgomery County Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) at 240-777-3636 or visit montgomerycountymd.gov/OCP.


Tracy D. Rezvani is with the Montgomery County, Maryland Office of Consumer Protection.