Precautions for veterans in wake of data theft

PERSONAL FINANCE

May 24, 2006|By EILEEN AMBROSE | EILEEN AMBROSE,SUN COLUMNIST

An imagination can run wild with what a thief can do with the Social Security numbers of more than 26 million veterans, but privacy experts and regulators are advising people not to panic.

The recent theft of veterans' information from the Maryland home of a data analyst with the Department of Veterans Affairs appears to be a routine burglary - not the work of thieves targeting Social Security numbers, experts said.

Also, the breach was well publicized, said Linda Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego. That means millions of veterans will be on the lookout for potential ID theft and will detect it early if it occurs, she said.

Unless one notices suspicious activity on statements, there's no reason now to close credit- card or bank accounts, federal officials said. Still, no one suggests veterans just sit back and do nothing.

There are steps they can take, including:

Placing a fraud alert in their credit files. This is one of the first steps to take with the three major credit-reporting agencies. This means you're requesting that creditors contact you before extending new credit under your name.

Once you place the credit alert, you will receive a free report from each of the agencies. Check for unusual items, such as debts you don't owe or inquiries into your report from businesses you never heard of, the Federal Trade Commission advised.

A free fraud alert will stay in your file for 90 days, but you can renew it, Foley said. Sometimes thieves won't use stolen information for 90 days, waiting until the fraud alert comes off.

Be aware that a fraud alert isn't foolproof, because not all credit issuers check credit reports, Foley said.

To place a fraud alert, call Equifax at 800-525-6285; Experian at 888-397-3742; and TransUnion at 800-680-7289.

If you call one credit-reporting agency, it's supposed to contact the other two.

Considering a credit freeze. This is far stronger than a fraud alert. Placing a credit freeze with a reporting agency will prevent creditors from seeing your file, which makes it unlikely new accounts would be opened.

Consumers can lift the freeze, say, when they are ready to purchase a car, and later reinstate it.

Seventeen states permit credit freezes for either all residents or just victims of identity theft, according to Consumers Union. In some cases, there is a fee to place a freeze or to remove it.

Maryland doesn't permit credit freezes.

Legislation to allow Marylanders to place freezes or to be notified of personal data breaches failed to pass during the General Assembly this year because of resistance from businesses, said Steve Sakamoto-Wengel, an assistant attorney general.

But Evan Hendricks, editor of the newsletter Privacy Times, suggests that Marylanders and others ineligible for a freeze ask for one anyway.

"There's no reason they can't give you a credit freeze," Hendricks said.

"So what will credit bureaus say, `Thanks for fighting for your country and risking your lives but now we won't freeze your credit report?' "

Officials for the three credit bureaus could not be reached for comment.

Monitoring reports. You can pay for a service to monitor your credit reports for suspicious activity. The cost can run around $120 to $180 a year.

But there's another way to monitor your report for free.

Under federal law, consumers are entitled to one free credit report annually from each of the three major reporting agencies. By ordering one report from a different agency every four months, consumers can monitor their reports year-round for free.

"It's a poor man's credit monitoring service," Foley said.

You can order a free report under federal law at 877-322-8228, or at www.annualcreditreport.com.

Marylanders, under state law, are also entitled to a free report from each of the three agencies once a year. That means they are eligible for a total of six free reports each year under state and federal laws.

When getting a credit report, ask that your Social Security number be truncated, so only part of the number appears on the report, Foley advised.

Thieves are aware that many consumers order credit reports after extensive breaches, and the thieves might steal the reports from unlocked mailboxes, she said.

Monitoring your mail. Be on the lookout for bills that don't arrive on time, credit cards you didn't request or other unusual items on financial statements, the FTC said.

Contacting authorities. If it appears someone is using your information, contact the police. Also, file a complaint with the FTC at 877-ID-THEFT (877- 438-4338) or at ftc.gov/idtheft.

The complaint information will be put into a database that is shared with 1,300 law enforcement agencies nationwide, said Betsy Broder, with the FTC. Its Web site also gives step-by-step information on combating fraudulent accounts opened in your name.

The government is providing information and updates for veterans at www.firstgov.gov or 800-333-4636.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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