The emails may already have reached your in-box: Valued customer, we regret to tell you that your name and email address may be in the hands of hackers.
All over the country, companies big and small are scrambling to warn their customers in the aftermath of what appears to be one of the biggest data breaches in recent times. But with some simple steps, you can protect yourself from the increased risk of identity theft that can follow a data breach.
Within a month of a breach, it's a good idea to get one of the three free annual reports you're entitled to, and another about four months later. Look for new accounts opened in your name. Every four months, check a free report from a different credit reporting agency — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — but report suspicious activity on any report to all three.
If a breach involves your credit or debit card, PIN or online banking numbers or health insurance, immediately contact the provider to freeze and replace that account or other identifier.
If it's your Social Security, driver's license or passport number that's been taken, you may also consider identity theft insurance or other protection services. You can also place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your credit report.
A fraud alert is free, easy to establish and can be renewed every 90 days. When it's in place, you're supposed to be contacted whenever new credit or services are applied for in your name. It's not foolproof, but simpler and easier than the stronger step of a credit freeze.
A freeze costs $5 to $20 per placement or removal if used as a preventive measure. It blocks potential lenders or service providers — including utilities and insurance companies — from checking your credit file at all, preventing credit from being taken out in your name. But it also means that if you're applying for credit or services, you'll need to lift the freeze temporarily so that company can look.
- If you haven't already, set up a dedicated email account on such free services as Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo to use for your dealings online with companies such as Epsilon's clients. This way, if you're barraged with spam — or subject to future email data breaches — at least it won't affect your primary email address.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.