The answer to whether your personal information has been exposed is likely to be, “Yes.” Your personal data has probably been exposed and again, yes, it has probably happened multiple times. Unless you have lived completely off the grid since birth, someone somewhere has collected data about you — data that is constantly at risk.
Permission to Access Your Personal Information May Not Be Required
Although there are regulations that must typically be followed, your permission is often not required for your personal data to be collected and stored. Take the credit reporting agencies (CRAs), for example. Although the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) does set forth ground rules about what is allowed to appear on your credit reports and who is allowed to access those reports, the CRAs do not need your permission to collect or sell your personal information. Point being: You don’t have the right to NOT have a credit report.
And Then There’s Data Vulnerability
You have probably heard about some of the high-profile data breaches that have occurred in recent years. However, the data breaches that occurred at places like Target, Anthem or even Equifax are certainly not the only breaches. The truth is that hackers are becoming increasingly more adept at stealing your personal information. Privacy Rights Clearinghouse estimates that over 10.2 billion (yes, billion) records have been compromised since 2005 — and those are just the breaches that have been made public, and that we know about. That’s larger than the population of the world!
How to Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
Unfortunately, since you are not the one collecting and storing your personal information, you do not have any control over how the privacy of said information is protected. However, there are steps you can take to try to prevent your personal data from being used against you when and if it becomes compromised.
Monitor Your Credit Reports
Your credit identity is a hacker’s primary target because it can be easily monetized. That makes your credit reports ground zero. Review your credit reports frequently, and not just once per year as some would suggest. Monitoring your credit reports may not actually prevent unauthorized credit applications or fraudulent accounts from being opened, but keeping a close eye on your reports will enable you to act quickly if fraud occurs.
Set Up Fraud Alerts
If you suspect that your personal data may have been compromised, you can place a free 90-day fraud alert on your three credit reports. (Tip: if you notify one credit bureau and add an alert, that bureau is required to notify the other two on your behalf.) You can also place a more permanent, seven-year "extended" fraud alert on your reports, but you will need to fill out an identity theft report to exercise this option. When a fraud alert is placed on your reports, lenders are required to contact you directly to verify that any new credit applications are indeed authorized. This is very effective but, again, is more reactive than proactive.
Freeze Your Credit
The most effective way to prevent stolen personal data from being used against you is to freeze all three of your credit reports. You will need to place a freeze with each CRA individually and, unless you have been a victim of identity theft, placing a credit freeze may not be free. However, a credit freeze with each CRA will take your credit reports out of circulation. This prevents new lenders from accessing your credit information at all and, therefore, should generally put the brakes on any new, fraudulent accounts from being issued in your name. I believe this is the most effective way to protect your credit identity because it prevents access, while the other methods just let you know after fraudulent access has been granted.