The week of March 4-10, 2018, is National Consumer Protection Week, dedicated to informing Americans about how to protect their personal and financial information and about their consumer rights.
Identity fraud, cybersecurity breaches and other scams can have lasting impacts on consumers’ lives. Unfortunately, crimes committed online and in person happen all too often.
Why National Consumer Protection Week is important
There were 15.4 million victims of identity fraud in 2016, an unnerving increase of 16 percent from the year before, and the largest increase since Javelin Strategy & Research started tracking identity fraud in 2003.
Further, some big names experienced cybersecurity hacks, which impacted millions of Americans and exposed identifying data to criminals. The largest incident involved Equifax, which initially reported an affected 143 million Americans when the news first broke in September 2017. A month later, the credit bureau added another 2.5 million individuals to the list, and in March 2018, another 2.4 million people, The Washington Post reported. These additions brought the total to 147.9 million Americans with various pieces of sensitive data exposed, including names, addresses, driver’s license numbers and Social Security numbers.
Six months after the Equifax hack, a CreditCards.com survey of 1,164 American adults found that half had not checked their credit score since the breach; 27 percent said they had never checked their credit score ever.
Despite the unfortunate prevalence of identity theft and other instances of fraud that could affect consumers, there are some things that people can do to minimize their own risk. Actions like checking your credit score, helping older relatives secure their data and learning the steps to take in the event of identity fraud can all serve to bolster your protections against the malicious efforts of criminals.
How to check your credit score
Staying informed about what your credit score is can clue you into how eligible you are for a loan and help you identify mistakes in your credit report.
Experts recommend checking your score once a year. In addition to this annual inspection, it’s a good idea to check your score before applying for a loan or making a major purchase like a home. It’s also wise to look it up if you suspect you’ve been a victim of identity theft.
There are several different routes you can take for checking your score, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Free services are available for consumers to utilize – CreditCards.com offers a way to check your score, as does Credit Karma. Some banks and credit card issuers will also offer their members a free look at their scores by including them in credit card statements or on-demand in their online account portals or mobile apps.
Another way is through the credit reporting companies themselves, though this usually comes at a small price. However, everyone is entitled to one free credit report each year from each of the three main bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian.
The credit report will include your score as well as the information the credit bureau has about you in their database, including which accounts you have open, your name, address and more. It’s a good idea to review this information every once in a while to make sure the bureaus have it all correct. You can order these free reports from www.AnnualCreditReport.com, which is a government-authorized website.
CFPB also pointed out that you can turn to a nonprofit credit counselor or an approved housing counselor to help you order your report. They’ll help you understand the information in the report, too.
How to help elderly relatives secure their data
In his proclamation declaring the 20th annual National Consumer Protection Week, President Donald Trump pointed out one of the most common forms of financial exploitation targets the elderly.
Elder financial abuse is a sad but very real problem, and there are things younger relatives can do to help their loved ones stay protected. CNN recommended a few steps you can take to reduce your older relatives’ risk of becoming a fraud victim, including:
- Putting your loved one’s name on the Do-Not-Call Registry at www.donotcall.gov.
- Reviewing their credit reports with them.
- Helping them make sure bill payments, using checks rather than cash to maintain a paper trail, or enrolling in automatic payments.
- Keeping them updated on common scams and telling them how to avoid falling victim to them – such as random phone calls soliciting money.
What to do after identity theft
The first thing you need to do after discovering your identity has been stolen, according to The Balance, is contact the Federal Trade Commission and explain the situation. You can also choose to contact your local police department.
The FTC recommends contacting any companies where you know fraud has occurred and ask them to freeze or close your accounts. Additionally, change any usernames, passwords and PINs associated with those accounts.
Next, contact each of the three credit bureaus and place a fraud alert with them. This will make it harder for the criminal to use your information to open new accounts. If someone has opened new accounts in your name, close them right away. If someone has placed charges on your credit cards, dispute them as soon as you recognize the fraud. Pulling your credit report can help you identify some of these illegal actions.
Once you’ve close accounts and eliminated fraudulent charges, don’t assume you’re in the clear. Continue to monitor your credit reports should those same fraudsters or different ones try to target you twice.