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What Seniors Can Do to Protect Against Identity Theft

                You may have heard about the most recent data breach that occurred earlier this month.  The credit reporting agency, Equifax announced that their supposedly secure computer system was hacked.  As many as 143 million Social Security numbers, names and addresses were accessed.  Odds are that you and/or your family members were affected by this widescale breach.

                Security experts explain that whoever stole this information will likely sell it to identity thieves who will then use it to establish new credit and bank accounts in the names of the people whose Social Security numbers were compromised.   Once these accounts are established then the thieves can make purchases and obtain loans which, of course, won’t be paid for or paid back, all negatively affecting credit.  It is a real mess to fix.  Seniors are particularly vulnerable to fraud since many may not be able to detect the theft as readily as younger people.  So, what can you do to protect yourself and your loved ones?

                After announcing the data breach, Equifax set up a website to answer questions and disseminate information,  To check whether you are affected by the breach you can type in your last name and the last 6 digits of your Social Security number.  Make sure you are doing this from a secure computer and network connection.  (With reports that as many as 143 million Americans had their information compromised, the odds are pretty good yours is included and I personally wouldn’t have confidence in any statement from Equifax telling me mine wasn’t included anyway.)

                So far there have been no reports of identity theft that can be specifically linked to the Equifax breach but that will come in time as the information is sold by those who took it to the thieves who will use it.  Security experts say that it is important to order a credit report so you can detect any suspicious activity.  You should order the report not just from Equifax but also from the other major credit reporting agencies, TransUnion and Experian.

                 You are entitled to one free credit report each year.  More frequently than that and it will cost a small fee but it’s a small price to pay to save a whole lot of heartache.  If you order one report every 120 days from a different reporting agency then you can monitor your credit closely without paying the fees.  While a report from one agency will not show any activity by the other 2 agencies much of the information is identical and it will give you a pretty good picture and a heads up if there is anything suspicious.

                 But, that’s only monitoring what has already happened.  What about taking a more proactive approach?  Is there anything that we can do to prevent thieves from opening accounts uses our personal information?  Yes, by placing a credit freeze on your credit file.  I’ll explain that in next week’s post.