NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Two seconds may be all that sits between you and the person who wants to steal your identity, but that shouldn't make freezing your credit a split-second decision.
According to a report this month from Javelin Strategy & Research in San Francisco, identity thieves stole $16 billion from 12.7 million U.S. consumers last year, creating an identity fraud victim every two seconds. That's down from the $18 billion stolen from 13.1 million people in 2013, but those identity thefts took place during a year in which retailers Neiman Marcus, Home Depot, Staples and Michael's all experienced breaches, as did JPMorgan Chase.
“Despite the headlines, the occurrence of identity fraud hasn’t changed much over the past year, and it is still a significant problem,” says Al Pascual, Javelin's director on fraud and security. “Consumers, financial institutions and retailers are all taking aggressive steps, yet we must remain vigilant.”
Eva Velasquez, president and chief executive of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego — a 501(c)3 nonprofit specializing in helping victims deal with the effects of identity theft — says a credit freeze is the best defense available to those who've had their identities stolen.
“A credit freeze is, by far, the most robust protection that consumers can employ,” she says. “It effectively will stop the thieves in their tracks.”
But does that make freezing one's credit a great idea in all cases? When consumers who haven't had their identities stolen try to proactively freeze their credit in the wake of a wide-scale data breach, it gets a bit trickier. Velasquez notes that credit reporting agencies will freeze the credit of identity theft victims for free, but may charge fees to those who haven't had their credit stolen. Those vigilant consumers, in some cases, will have to pay various credit agencies a fee to freeze and thaw their credit as a precautionary measure.
“ID theft and fraud situations are so complicated, and consumers can really get in over their heads really quickly,” says Stacey Vogler, U.S. managing director at British-based insurance company Protect Your Bubble. “They may jump to conclusions or automatically freeze their credit, and we recommend they first reach out to financial advisors and, if they're lucky enough to have identity theft protection, to reach out to the advisors available to them 24/7.”
A preemptive credit freeze can come with more than just financial implications. Vogler notes that while freezing credit prevents any lines of credit from being opened in your name, it can also show up during a credit check when you're applying for a job and can surface when trying to refinance a mortgage, applying for insurance or take any other action that involves a credit inquiry.
It freezes your credit cards, can affect your ability to use a debit card and, as Velasquez notes, can prevent you from effectively reviewing your credit reports.
“Once you freeze them, they're frozen to you as well until you unfreeze them,” she says. “You want to have those copies of your credit report reviewed and available, because [if you've had your identity stolen] you are most likely going to be filing a police report and a Federal Trade Commission affidavit and you'll want to hand that information to law enforcement.”
Besides, if your identity hasn't been stolen, there are still a whole lot of options available for protection from a breach. Javelin advises implementing more of the security features on your smartphone and other devices, updating your passwords with strong replacements, asking your bank or credit card company to update your card to new chip-and-PIN technology, signing up for account alerts with all your financial institutions and taking advantage of free monitoring services offered after a data breach.
Velasquez, meanwhile, suggests taking your bank or brokerage up on its offers of extra PIN or password protection on your accounts. She also suggests monitoring your account statements. If those statements usually arrive via email or standard mail and have stopped coming, consider that a red flag. Also, keep an eye out for collection notices or calls for charges you didn't make.
“It's a good step in stopping financial identity theft, but putting a credit freeze on doesn't prevent someone from filing a false tax return, it doesn't stop medical identity theft, and criminal identity theft can still be perpetrated,” she says. “It's a very solid step on the financial side, but there are other crimes a thief can commit once they have all your information, so you're going to want to watch for red flags.”
Vogler stresses the importance of speaking with a financial advisor before taking pre-emptive action. She also points out that identity theft protection exists just for that purpose, with Protect Your Bubble charging $70 to $90 annually or $8 to $10 monthly for such services.
“There have been a lot of data breaches recently, and if you have an unconfirmed case of identity theft or fraud, this is where you want an expert to give you the ins and outs of the situation,” she says. “If you've been the customer of a company that's had a breach, that's an issue that could be best solved by monitoring instead of freezing."
She's also quick to point out that once that freeze is in place, in rare cases it's taken up to a month to have it thawed. Even when a credit freeze works flawlessly, it's only as helpful as a consumer allows it to be — if you forget the PIN or other identifying information a credit bureau gives you to thaw your credit, it can drag out the process even longer. It's one thing to have no access to your cards and accounts because someone is posing as you. It's another to be locked out because you lost or can't remember the information that can make you whole again.
“They make you go through a lot of steps because you already put out there that you don't want anyone getting access to your credit,” Velasquez says. “It's not like resetting your password.”
— Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore., for MainStreet
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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.