Photo: Marc Royce
Q: I received a letter from my employer stating that a laptop containing my address and Social Security number had been stolen. The following day, I got a letter from my insurance company that said a disk with the same data, plus my driver's license number, was missing. Both offered a yearlong subscription to Equifax Credit Watch, a paltry amount of identity theft insurance, and an apology. I intend to take advantage of the service, but I'm angry. I've guarded my personal data closely over the years, only to be victimized by others' carelessness. Do I have any recourse?
A: Two notices in two days is astounding, but every year millions of Americans run into similar situations where a piece of their personal or financial identity is misplaced or outright stolen. Recently, Northern Californians have been dealing with an outbreak of debit card "skimming"—consumers using their cards at stores and gas stations have had money drained from their bank accounts after thieves found a way to collect their card information and PIN codes.
As you note, efforts to protect ourselves become useless when the companies we do business with compromise our security. Credit monitoring isn't good enough. You should demand two years of a free credit freeze at each of the three main credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. With monitoring, you're merely notified of suspicious activity; with a freeze, no one can look at your credit profile without you first allowing the ban to be lifted. That means that if a thief tried to open an account in your name, no lender would be able to do a credit check on your account, so the attempt would be thwarted. Push for two years because smart crooks know that one year of monitoring is a standard response to this sort of data breach, so they bide their time just long enough before trying again.
To put a freeze on your reports, go to the website of each credit bureau and search "security freeze" for instructions. Many states have laws requiring that this service be free for people who can prove they were identity theft victims. For others, the average charge is $10 for initial setup and $10 every time you lift the ban.
Even with a credit freeze, it pays to stay vigilant. Those with access to a secure computer should sign up to view their card statements and bank activity online. This lets you check regularly for unusual transactions. The sooner you notice any withdrawals you didn't make, the faster you can work with the bank to stop identity thieves. Typically, you will be reimbursed the full amount of your loss as long as you report the problem in a timely manner.
From the October 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine