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Identity theft is identified as the most common form of fraud reported for the past several years. According to the statistics, someone’s identity is stolen every two seconds. Does this worry me? Not really! It was a reality that shook me when I began exploring and researching fraud and scams and while identity theft is still a real threat, there is clear reality: virtually everyone is already a victim of identity theft. Your personal information has been compromised, not once but multiple times. Do you have accounts or have shopped at Walmart, Apple, TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Microsoft, Bank of America, Walgreens, Walmart, Target, Amazon, or virtually all national merchants, your information has been compromised in data breaches. The same is true for your information held by the Bureau of the Census, IRS, Anthem Blue Cross, Google, Yahoo, and Facebook.

Let’s start with the assumption that your identity has been compromised, multiple times. The criminals already possess your Social Security Number, driver’s license number, address, demographics, and much more, and if you are a property owner, they likely know the value of your home given that property records are often available online as public records.

The task is not to protect yourself from identity theft. It is to protect yourself from criminal use of your identity. That means taking two rather easy steps: obtain copies of your credit report from the major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Free credit reports are available from many sources but the best provider is www.annualcreditreport.com (also 877-322-8228). Sanctioned by the federal government, this site provides free copies of reports from the three bureaus at no cost. Through April 2022, free copy requests can be made weekly but that is really not necessary. Once every few months would be valuable. There are other places through which you can order free credit reports including the credit bureaus themselves. If you choose to use one of these alternate sources including LifeLock and FreeCreditReport.com, be prepared to see some hard sell efforts to enroll you for other services such as identity protection. In addition, registration on some of these sites includes signing up for additional services so read the fine print.

The second step in self defense is ordering credit freezes from the major credit bureaus. A credit freeze, in effect, locks out access to your credit report by anyone other than you. This is a critical step in self-defense. Credit freezes prevent others from using the stolen identity to open new bank, credit card, or loan accounts. Your use of existing accounts is not hindered and you can thaw the freeze if you need to apply for additional credit, a loan, rental, or purchase. Credit freezes need to be requested from each of the credit bureaus separately:

Equifax — https://www.equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services/ (888-548-7878);

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Experian — https://www.experian.com/freeze/center.html (888-397-3742)

TransUnion — https://www.transunion.com/credit-freeze (888-397-3742)

Note: You will be asked to provide your Social Security Number.

If you have requested freezes, are you protected from scams and fraud? No! The real threat is when the criminal takes the stolen information and uses it to gain access to current assets and accounts. This is where “phishing” and impersonation become profitable. Using obtained information including phone numbers, email addresses and demographics, the scammer takes on the identity of a company or agency and requests additional data such as account numbers and passwords. By example, a fraudulent website is created to impersonate your internet provider’s website or the Amazon website. You receive an email message asking you to click on a link to verify your account which takes you to a web page appearing to be legitimate. By entering the requested information, you grant access to your account, allowing the criminal to change your ID and password and then order new services or products for which you will be billed. Your best defense against these crimes is to use a reliable contact as found on an invoice or known website and ask if there is a problem. Do not use any of the contacts provided in the message you received.

Questions, concerns? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network.