Each passing week seems to bring news of yet another data breach, exposing an ever-rising number of consumers to potential fraud and identity theft.
This past week, The Post and Courier's Lauren Sausser reported that 4.5 million consumers' data was compromised at Community Health Systems network hospitals, including six facilities in South Carolina. Previous medical-related data breaches included the Medical University of South Carolina last year, and South Carolina's Medicaid agency the year before.
Also in August, The New York Times reported: "A Russian crime ring has amassed the largest known collection of stolen Internet credentials, including 1.2 billion user name and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses," according to researchers at Hold Security. And that comes on top of the parade of stores, such as Target, and websites from which data has been stolen.
So, is it time for consumers to go beyond the usual advice of changing passwords and signing up for credit monitoring? For many people, taking the more serious step of locking down credit reports could be a good choice.
Hackers and data thieves have wormed their way into so many databases that most people should assume their personal information has been compromised. That data potentially can be used to get into people's bank and credit card accounts, compromise email and social media accounts, and increases the potential for identity theft, in which criminals assume people's identities to open charge-card accounts and even claim federal tax refunds.
So, yes, regularly change your passwords. Credit-monitoring services may alert you to potential fraud. But here's the next step: Consider contacting the three major credit bureaus and putting a freeze on your credit reports.
When you tell the credit bureaus to put a security freeze on your accounts, that's supposed to keep people from accessing your credit reports, which in turn should keep people from fraudulently opening accounts in your name. A freeze will stay in place until you lift it, which you would need to do in order to apply for a credit card or loan.
Under South Carolina law, state residents cannot be charged a fee to place or lift a freeze on their accounts. To freeze your credit reports, you'll need to contact all three major credit bureaus. Here's how to contact them:
Equifax: https://www.freeze.equifax.com or call 800-685-1111.
Experian: www.experian.com/freeze or call 888-397-3742.
TransUnion: www.transunion.com or call 800-680-7289.
If you freeze your credit reports, remember that it could take several days to unfreeze them if you apply for credit or otherwise need to allow access to your reports.
If you don't want to freeze your reports, a shorter-term step is also available, and that's a free 90-day fraud alert. A fraud alert tells potential lenders to take extra steps to confirm your identity before issuing credit or approving a loan.
One advantage to a 90-day fraud alert is that with a single phone call you can put a fraud alert in place with all three major credit bureaus, as opposed to having to contact each one for a security freeze. Just call any one of the bureaus at the numbers listed in this column.
Before placing restrictions on credit reports, review the reports yourself if you have not done so lately. Under federal law, you can get a copy of each of the three major bureau reports once every 12 months at no charge, by going online to www.annualcreditreport.com, or by calling 877-322-8228.
Finally, if you do become a victim of identity theft, consider getting in touch with the Internal Revenue Service to get a personal identification code that would need to be used to file your federal tax return. This step is meant to keep people from fraudulently claiming a tax refund in your name.
If you want to request an identity-theft-related PIN code, the document you'll need is IRS Form 14039. It's available online at irs.gov, or by calling the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit toll-free at 800-908-4490.