Identity theft is one of those back-of-your-mind kind of fears. The idea of someone using your credit card is always lurking there when you enter your card number online or fill out a form that asks for personal information.
It is a justifiable concern. A record 15.4 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2016 — a 16 percent increase from the prior year, according to a report from Javelin Strategy & Research. So if you haven’t experienced your card being fraudulently used, you probably know someone who has.
But what can you do?
There are three main methods used to detect, deter or prevent identity theft. And then there is the nuclear option: a credit freeze.
Is a credit freeze worth it? We’ll break down the pros and cons. But first let’s review the more conventional options and their limitations.
The most basic approach is do-it-yourself credit monitoring, which is free and relatively easy.
The basics entail balancing your checkbook to make sure no one’s running up debit charges without you knowing, and checking your credit card bills line by line to make sure those charges are legitimate. Some thieves are in it for the long term, and they will make a series of small charges in the hope that they fly under your radar. So go over every line. If something looks unfamiliar, check with your card issuer.
The DIY method also entails pulling your credit report at least once per year to make sure no one has opened any accounts in your name.
The major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — are required by law to provide you with one free credit report each year. You can obtain them at AnnualCreditReport.com but note that they are only credit reports. If you want free credit score information and credit reporting analysis, use a website like Credit Sesame.
The downside to the DIY approach is that it doesn’t prevent fraud, it only catches it after the fact. Still, it will help you spot fraud in a timely fashion and do damage control.
Credit monitoring is outsourcing the DIY method, at least parts of it. You pay a company to check in on your credit reports from the three major credit reporting agencies. Typically, you pay a flat monthly fee, and the company sends you reports about any suspicious activity that showed up in the previous month.
So if someone opens something in your name, you’ll know within a few weeks and can act accordingly.
The biggest drawback is that credit monitoring companies, like DIY credit monitoring, don’t prevent fraud from happening. They simply notify you after the fact. Additionally, you’re paying for something you could do yourself.
To learn more, check out “Ask Stacy: Should I Pay for Identity Theft Protection and Credit Monitoring?”
Another way to guard against identity theft is to place a fraud alert with one of the three major credit reporting agencies.
Fraud alerts — which are free — effectively put a notice on your credit report that a potential creditor should verify your identity before opening a new account in your name. If you place a fraud alert with one of the three major credit reporting agencies, it is required to notify the other two.
In general, an alert remains in place for at least 90 days but can be renewed. One exception is for victims of identity theft who have a police report to prove it. They can place an extended alert that lasts for seven years.
Alerts are good for people who have reason to believe that someone else might have their information, such as people affected by a credit-card data breach.
Fraud alerts won’t help you if someone already has your information and is using an existing card number. But they should prevent someone from opening a new account in your name.
For more information about placing a fraud alert, visit the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website.
A credit freeze is kind of like the nuclear option in the sense that it is a more powerful weapon against identity thieves — but could entail fallout for you.