More help

Have more questions on how to protect yourself? Call in to the Kim Komando radio show from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at 1-888-825-5254. The show airs on 94.3 WSC News Radio from noon to 3 p.m. Sundays.

It's a bad time to be living in South Carolina if you value your privacy. A hacker struck the state Department of Revenue and exposed 3.6 million Social Security numbers and data from 387,000 credit and debit card accounts.

Previous coverage

For more stories about the state Department of revenue breach, go to postandcourier.com/hacked.

The sad part is that this was the third successful attack in two months! That doesn't really inspire confidence.

South Carolina is providing those affected with one year of free credit monitoring, but that's a small comfort when hackers have your information.

If you don't live in South Carolina and think your data is safe, think again. All that stands between you and complete identity theft is one bad password or missed computer patch in a government or corporate office.

Does that mean you should rush out and purchase identity-theft protection? Not necessarily.

You've probably seen ads touting identity-theft protection services. For a monthly fee, your credit report is locked and you receive copies of your credit reports annually. The services also promise to insure you against identity theft.

Unfortunately, those monthly fees add up quickly, and you can accomplish the same thing for less through the credit reporting agencies. Plus, you don't need to disclose personal data to a third party.

Free credit reports

Keeping an eye on your credit report is your first step to protecting yourself.

Federal law grants you a free credit report each year and each of the three major credit reporting agencies must provide one.

I recommend staggering your credit report requests. For example, request a report from Experian. Four months later, request one from Equifax. In eight months, request it from TransUnion.

Credit activity should appear on all reports. However, there may be discrepancies between reports from the three bureaus.

Request your free reports at AnnualCreditReport.com. Be sure you go to the correct site; many sites use the word “free” in their names. But for free reports mandated by Congress, you want AnnualCreditReport.com, period.

Freezing your credit

You can also freeze your credit report. A credit freeze prevents thieves from opening new lines of credit.

New creditors can't access your credit report. So they are less likely to issue credit to a thief. That assumes that the creditor consults a reporting agency.

Companies with which you already do business may access your report. It may be accessed for fraud investigation, collection, account review and the like.

Plan carefully if you freeze your credit as you can't apply for new credit with a freeze in place, and limits cannot be increased on existing accounts.

Credit freezes can be lifted, either temporarily or permanently. However, it may take three days or longer to lift a freeze.

A freeze can be lifted temporarily for a particular creditor. You need to verify your identification and provide a special PIN and then you name the creditor. You may need to provide another PIN to the creditor as well.

Or you can lift a freeze for a set amount of time ranging from 1 to 30 days. This is helpful if you are comparing credit card or mortgage rates.

You must freeze your credit with each of the three major agencies. There is no charge in South Carolina.

Credit reporting agencies do not always make freeze information easy to find. Go to postandcourier.com/komando for direct links to Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about consumer electronics, computers and the Internet. For more information, go to www.komando.com.