How a Credit Freeze Can Prevent Identity Theft

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It seems like every time you turn on the news or log on to your Facebook account these days, there is chatter about yet another massive data breach. In today’s increasingly digitized world, our personal information has never been more at risk of becoming compromised. Identity theft is a very real threat to your valuable identifiable data, your credit score and your overall financial security. While it can seem like identity theft is out of your control, you actually do have the power to defend yourself. One of the best ways to do this is with a credit freeze.

What Is a Credit Freeze?

A credit freeze puts an immediate lock down on your credit information and prevents potential cyber thieves from stealing any of your identifying information in order to open an account (anywhere) and start racking up debt in your name. A freeze will disallow anyone who is not actually you from gaining access to your credit file. Since creditors like banks and credit card companies need to see your credit report before they will open a new line of credit for you, they will be unable to do so unless you specifically lift the credit freeze.

When you initiate a credit freeze, the only people who will have unlimited access to your credit report are you and any current creditors and debt collectors you may have. Employers and some government agencies will have limited access to your credit report.


IMPORTANT NOTE: A credit freeze does not impact your credit score and is totally free.


When Is a Credit Freeze Called For?

A lot of people freeze their credit after they have experienced an information breach or have otherwise had all or part of their personal data stolen. The challenge most commonly encountered when freezing your credit report after an incident is the race against time. Who will “get to” your credit report (and all of the personal information contained therein) first – you, or the criminal?

Because of the aforementioned “race against time,” preventative measures, like freezing your credit before an incident occurs, are much more likely to be effective. With a credit freeze, even if your Social Security number somehow becomes compromised, the rest of your data and accounts will be protected. It is also a great idea to freeze your child’s credit report now in order to protect their future.

How Do I Freeze My Credit?

While freezing your credit is free, it does require you to jump through a few hoops. You will need to contact all three major credit bureaus and freeze your account individually. While this is time consuming, it will be worth it when your credit report and score remain safe if (when) another cyber attack materializes.

Each credit bureau will present a slightly different process to freeze your credit, but you will definitely need to provide them with: your Social Security number, birth date, last two addresses, a clear copy of a government-issued ID card, and a copy of a bill or bank statement with proof of your current address. You can request a freeze via phone, e-mail, or through the good old-fashioned Postal Service.

Once you apply for a credit freeze, the credit bureaus will give you a PIN with which to manage your credit freeze. You will need to keep this number in a safe place because you will also need it in order to unfreeze your information when the time comes to open a new line of credit. Your credit freeze will be activated one business day after you make the request via phone or online, with mail requests taking three business days.

What Happens When I Need to “Unfreeze” My Credit?

To unfreeze your credit, you will need to provide the same credentials with which you initiated the freeze, to the credit bureaus. Per federal law, the freeze should be lifted within an hour if you make the request via phone or email. Mail requests to unfreeze your credit will take three business days.

You can also request to have the freeze lifted temporarily, so a potential employer or landlord can do a quick check before your credit goes back into freeze mode.


PRO TIP: Ask which credit bureau they will be contacting and only unfreeze your data at that bureau.


Is There a Down Side to Freezing My Credit?

There are some cons to credit freezes. The process of requesting and managing a credit freeze with three different credit bureaus can be a lot to juggle. You will also have to go through the extra step of unfreezing your information anytime you apply for a new line of credit. Additionally, putting a credit freeze into effect now won’t protect any of your existing accounts from fraudulent activity.

Regardless of any negatives, in today’s increasingly digital world, protecting yourself from a cyber attack with a frozen credit report is a fantastic—and free—way to keep your personal information private.

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What the Equifax Breach Means for Consumers and How to Take Action

The Federal Trade Commission recently reached a settlement with Equifax over a data breach that has impacted around 147 million Americans. The popular credit monitoring agency admitted to a leak that included social security numbers, addresses, birth dates, driver’s license numbers, and credit card information. Nearly half of all adults in the United States have been affected and are therefore eligible to file a claim in the settlement to receive compensation from Equifax.

What does the Equifax breach mean for you?

The first thing you should do is check to see if your information has been impacted by this breach. On the official Equifax Data Breach Settlement website, you can enter your last name and the last six digits of your social security number to see if your data was part of the breach. Make sure you are using the official, government approved website before entering any personal information. If you determine that your data was indeed breached, you have a few things to consider. The settlement includes three options for compensation:

– A one-time payment of up to $125

– 10 years of free credit monitoring services

– A one-time payment of up to $20,000 if you can prove you spent time or money on identity theft services due to the data breach

In order to receive any of the above compensations, you must fill out the application on the website by January 22, 2020. You can also choose to opt out of the settlement. In order to officially opt out, you must formally exclude yourself by November 19 of this year.

It is important to consider how this breach could impact you before you decide on a settlement option. Despite the low payout amount, consumers should not take this data breach lightly. Once your private, identifying information has been leaked, it can spread indefinitely. Data hackers can sell and re-sell your information forever. If your information is actively being used, $125 is not even close to enough money to cover the cost it will take to repair and protect your finances. Equifax has allotted $425 million for financial compensation—meaning actual, per person payments will likely be much less than the $125 listed. Early applicants will have a better chance of getting the full amount.

Because of this, financial advisors are suggesting that consumers opt for the free credit monitoring or exclude themselves from the settlement all together. Credit monitoring and identity theft services could serve you much better than $125 in the unfortunate event that your information is being sold on the dark web. Opting out of the settlement would allow you to sue Equifax as an individual, giving you more legal power to recuperate your financial losses in the event of a significant identity theft situation. Additionally, if your information has been seriously compromised and you have experienced significant financial loss due to identity theft, it is important to speak with a NJ lawyer who has experience with identity theft.

The one thing you can and should do right away in response to the Equifax data breach is to start practicing better cyber hygiene. Hackers look for more than just social security numbers and credit card information. Oversharing other personal information can be just as costly online. To protect yourself from identity theft online, these three steps can help keep your information secure:

1. Social Media: Make sure all of your social media accounts (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) are private so the only people who can see your information are those you choose to connect with. Even if your account is private, carefully consider what you share. Hackers can use your hometown, your birthday, your employment history, and other pieces of information commonly shared on social media platforms to acquire your private data.

2. Data Check: Google your name and city and see what pops up. If your full name, address, e-mail, or other personal information appears, this should make you wary about sharing additional information online. The more free information a hacker has access to, the easier it is for them to assume your identity to gather critical data about you, such as your social security or credit card number(s.)

3. Passwords: Get into the habit of changing all of your online passwords regularly and never use the same password twice. If a hacker is able to breach one account, they will try the same password over and over again. This can be disastrous for those who use the same password repeatedly.

With the global transition to online platforms, the way we protect our personal information and financial data has to change. Unfortunately, events like the Equifax data breach are becoming more and more common. Learning how to protect yourself and your personal information from hackers could save you a lot of time, money, and emotional distress. Minimizing the amount of personal information available online can be your first defense against cyber hackers.

 

 

A Relative Stole My Child’s Identity: What Are My Options in New Jersey?

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Having one’s identify stolen is stressful, and remedying the breach is complicated and time-consuming. This is all doubly true when it is not your own identity that is stolen, but rather your child’s. Worst of all: realizing that you are one of the thousands of Americans whose own relative has stolen your child’s identity.

6 in 10 of the children who are victims of identity theft know their perpetrator well. By contrast, a scant 7% of adult victims of identity theft were acquainted with the person who had stolen their information.

While it might seem obvious to you that your kindergartner couldn’t possibly have taken a weekend trip to go scuba diving without you noticing, that won’t make it any easier for you to straighten out the chaos left in the wake of child identity theft; regretfully it’s just as complicated as adult identity theft.

A child’s SSN can be even more valuable than an adult’s; after all, a child’s identity is a blank slate. That means it can be used as part of a con to seek government benefits, to open lines of credit or bank accounts, and to rent housing without conflicting information showing up on the radar.

The following guide will take you step by step through the procedure you’ll need to follow once you’ve discovered that your child’s identity is being used illegally.

1. Contact The Authorities

If your child’s identity has been stolen by a relative, you may be feeling conflicted about reporting your relative to local authorities. Even when we’re betrayed by a family member in such a reckless and selfish manner, many of us would rather not see a loved one prosecuted.

Unfortunately, credit institutions will require a police report detailing the crime of identity theft before they’ll permit you to rectify your child’s good name and credit standing. You must set aside your feelings for your family member and allow the law to intervene.

Before you contact the police, prepare yourself for the reality that is soon to follow. Turning in your loved one means accepting the likelihood that they’ll receive a felony conviction. New Jersey Identity Theft sentencing guidelines suggest prison terms ranging in length according to the severity of the financial damage and hefty fines to go with them.

2. Place a Fraud Alert

The next step is contacting one of the credit reporting companies and placing a fraud alert. The one you choose is supposed to alert the other two, but if you want to be sure this happens, it would be wise to follow up and make sure it’s been done.

Here are the contact numbers for the 3 major credit bureaus:

Experian (TRW) 888-397-3742

TransUnion 800-680-7289

Equifax 800-525-6285

3. Submit a Report to the FTC

Complete the form online here. Once this form has been submitted, you’ll be given a full report on your identity theft and an individualized recovery plan. This report serves as proof of your child’s identity having been stolen, so under no circumstances should you skip this step.

What’s Next?

Once the above steps have been completed, you’ll begin the potentially lengthy process of contacting each institution or individual who has been duped by the con.

Contact the fraud departments for each point of theft and inform them that your child is a minor who is not legally permitted to enter into contracts. Attach a copy of your child’s birth certificate, if necessary.

Close any accounts that have been opened in your child’s name. When you contact a business or bank who lent money or extended credit to the thief, request letters confirming that these accounts do not belong to your child. This letter needs to declare your child free of these debts and confirm that the accounts have been removed from your child’s credit report.

Consider a Child Credit Freeze

Finally, you may consider freezing your child’s credit until they are old enough to use it themselves. A credit freeze simply restricts access to your child’s file, meaning it’s much more difficult for a thief—related to you or a total stranger—to open new accounts in your child’s name.

Contact a Credit Repair Professional

If you’ve worked your way through all of the steps above or got stuck on one of them, reach out to a NJ credit repair attorney. Repairing your child’s credit now is crucial to their financial wellness later in life.

Can I Sue the Person Who Stole my Identity?

Stories of identity theft are on the rise in this country, which comes as a surprise to those who have become rather comfortable with trusting various forms of technology in every facet of their lives. Indeed, our techno-centric lives have contributed to the creation of tech savvy criminals who can hack virtually any computer system or device.

Although it seemed like identity theft and account hacking were less prevalent for a few years, accounts of stolen personal identifying information are now on the rise again. Hackers have learned their way around firewalls, safety features and encryption settings designed to prevent this very crime.

It seems like nearly every day that we hear about a friend’s Facebook, email or other online communication/social media account being hacked. While those used to be more of a nuisance than a danger – we can now shop right from our Facebook and other social media profiles. This means a hacker can shop as you if they are able to gain access to your account(s).

Additionally, there have been far too many reports of corporations experiencing data breaches – nearly everyone has received at least one notification letter in the mail detailing what information of theirs was potentially stolen during their recent cyber attack. Even giants like Target and Equifax have been victims of cyber crime.

What would you do if you discovered that your personal information – that being your name, birth date, social security number, home address, and other identifiers was stolen during one of these data breaches and used by another person in order to create accounts in your name? The potential for damage to your credit score is huge. What recourse do you have?

While it can be a primal instinct to want to sue the pants off the person who stole your information, that isn’t always easy to do. However, if you are able to pinpoint the criminal in question (or the corporation who allowed your personal data to be leaked) – it is possible to sue for up to three times the damages you experienced.

As soon as you realize that another person has been using your personal information to make purchases or perform other actions while posing as you – make a police report at your local police station. The sooner your identity theft matter is on record, the better. It’s important not to simply ignore it and hope it goes away, because you definitely want to avoid hitting the statute of limitations on a crime like this. Reports show that the average identity theft victim spends an average of two years trying to prove their own identity, getting charges removed from credit cards and fixing credit reports that now contain false information.

For more information about New Jersey identity theft and the statute of limitations on such crimes in our state, read about the Wrongful Impersonation statute (N.J.S.A. 2C:21-17) and contact a certified and experienced NJ credit repair attorney to help you right the wrongs that have been done.

Will a Secondary Credit Number Give Me a New Credit History?

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If you, like many other Americans today, have found yourself with a less-than-desirable credit score, you most likely feel frustrated and powerless when it comes to getting a loan. Buying a home, a new car, or even a home appliance can prove next to impossible with a bad credit score. There are loan companies that will lend to borrowers with low credit scores, but you’ve probably already realized that they’ll charge you an astronomical interest rate.

You may find yourself wondering if any other options exist: is there a way to “get around” the fact that you have a low credit score? It can be difficult to accept your limited sub-standard loan options, especially if you are currently in a good place financially and your credit score just hasn’t caught up yet.

If you’ve found yourself in this position, beware of companies who will gladly capitalize on your desire to borrow money with bad credit. Businesses like this may offer you something called a “Secondary Credit Number” or a “Credit Privacy Number.” They’ll be sure to tell you that their strategies are legal, and that you can use this new number (for which they will charge you a hefty flat fee) to apply for new lines of credit without using your own personal information.

You may be wondering – “How can I apply for a loan without giving any of my real personal information?” The answer is simple: you can’t, unless you’re ok with committing fraud.

These shady credit repair companies will tell you to use the “Secondary Credit Number” instead of your Social Security Number on loan applications, in order to keep lenders from seeing your actual credit score. By using verbal trickery or simple omission, they’ll fail to reveal that your “Secondary Credit Number” is actually a fraudulent Social Security Number. Sometimes they are numbers taken from children or people who are deceased.

Rather than doing business with scammers who only have fraudulent practices to share with you, there are legal steps you can take to improve your real credit score. It’s important to realize that it does take some time to lawfully clean up a really bad financial past. However, if you’re patient and diligent about making the right changes, your credit score can improve significantly in 6 months to a year.

By working with a legitimate credit repair specialist who is certified and experienced with debt negotiation techniques, you will guarantee yourself aboveboard results that will last a lifetime. Steer far away from any “debt settlement” or “credit repair” companies that are not licensed by the State of New Jersey. If they are not licensed, they are not abiding by New Jersey laws.

A New Jersey bankruptcy attorney who specializes in credit repair will be able to help you attain your goals while staying on the right side of the law. Some attorneys offer free office or phone consultations so they can assess your financial circumstances and lay out a plan to raise your credit score. Although you may be wary of attorney’s fees, your return on investing in the right person will give you an exceptional pay-off that will be well worth every penny.

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Wisdom Wednesday: How to Avoid Identity Theft

 

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In recent years, identity theft has become a much more common problem than it used to be. It is a very serious crime, and the perpetrator(s) can serve jail time if caught. Offenders who commit aggravated identity theft (those who use another person’s identity without legal permission and then commit a felony act) will get an extra two years tacked on to their prison sentence automatically. Aggravated identity thieves cannot receive probation.

The point being: identity theft is not a fun little game for either the perpetrator or the victim. The repercussions can be severe, damaging, and highly stress-inducing for the victim. Probably the most important thing to know about identity theft is that it can happen to literally anyone.

What is Identity Theft, Anyway?

Identity theft happens when either a person you know or a stranger somehow accesses your private information without you knowing about it. Once the thief has accessed your personal information (bank account number, credit card number, Social Security benefits information, etc), s/he will act as you in order to take possession of your money, resources or benefits.

This means that your bank account may be drained, your credit card could be charged for multiple expensive purchases,  your Social Security or other benefits may be stolen, and more. Since the perpetrator will be acting as you during these offenses – your name, reputation, achievements and credit score will all be put at risk.

If the perpetrator is experienced, s/he may be undetectable or untraceable, leaving you to clean up the mess that was made. Your finances can potentially be ruined, as can your reputation.

Can I Protect Myself Against Identity Thieves?

The answer to that is a complicated “Yes.” Protecting yourself against identity theft is possible, but you must be diligent. The most important first step in protecting yourself is to recognize the behaviors you engage in every day that put you at risk of having your personal information stolen and misused. Being aware of how and when thieves get ahold of your information will enable you to use more caution during certain situations.

Some of these behaviors include: online shopping, sharing your personal information with staff members at a place of business or office, using a cell phone or laptop with a public wireless connection, tossing the wrong things (pre-approved credit cards or other mail that contains personal info) into your trash can and using your debit card to withdraw money from an ATM.

During all of those activities, your personal information isn’t secure. However, there are things you can do to make sure your information is as protected as possible.

If you use the internet as your own personal shopping mall (and who doesn’t, these days?), make sure all of your account passwords are complex and different. Make it your practice to shop only on websites that begin with https:// – the added -s means they are a secure site. Never use the internet to shop, pay bills, or do any banking when you’re in a public place using an unsecured Wi-Fi connection. Any number of people will likely be sharing that public Wi-Fi connection, which means that they can easily “see” any personal information that you may be using.

Never give out personal information over the phone or via email. In fact, you should only provide someone with your Social Security number if absolutely necessary, and ideally only face-to-face. If you receive mail that contains personal info – shred it before tossing it in the bin. Delete any emails that request your personal info.

In order to maintain the safety of your personal information, make it your practice to check your bank and other account statements carefully and regularly. If you see any charges that you didn’t personally make, you will know that your information has been wrongfully accessed, and you’ll need to take immediate action.

If you have been a victim of identity theft and a creditor is attempting to collect a debt from you that was incurred by an identity thief, you may need to contact an attorney to ensure that you will have an excellent defense against any and all debts that were not made by you personally.

Image credit: Don Hankins