The reported number of consumers who were victims of the Target data breach has varied widely. Original estimates indicated that 40 million Target customers had their payment information compromised. Later reports, as more information came to light, state that as many as 110 million consumers may be victims of the data breach – a breach which includes personal data in addition to payment information. Whether or not we ever know the real number of victims, we can be sure that the data breach is the largest in history.
If you shopped at Target over the 2013 holidays then your data was almost certainly compromised. However, it appears that the damage may be even more severe than originally believed. In fact according to several reports, Target customers who had their information stolen may include online shoppers and customers who have shopped at the store at “any point in the past.” Concerned that you may have been a victim of the data breach? Here are 3 steps that you may wish to consider to protect yourself from future fraudulent activity.
1. Step One: Get new credit cards, debit cards, and PIN numbers…yesterday!
Banks are currently issuing millions of new debit cards and credit cards to their customers in the wake of this enormous data breach. Yes, changing your PIN numbers and plastic may be a bit of a hassle but it is nothing compared to the hassle which comes along with fighting fraudulent charges or identity theft. You might have to make a few calls to update your payment information for any reoccurring bills (i.e. gym memberships, satellite television, coffee of the month club, etc.) but the hassle is well worth the protection it will afford you. If any fraudulent charges do occur you will want to be sure to call your bank immediately to alert them. Next, take a deep breath and try not to freak out. You can rest assured that, as long as you notify your bank in a timely fashion, you will not be responsible for the fraudulent charges thanks to a number of consumer protection laws. Even if you are a victim of the data breach you should not have to lose a penny out of your pocket.
2. Step Two: Consider a credit freeze, but count the cost.
A credit freeze is a proactive way to help protect your credit reports before identity theft occurs. (NOTE: a credit freeze will protect your personal data, but not your credit card or debit card information.) When you freeze your credit reports you are actually taking the reports out of circulation. Therefore, no future lender will be able to access your credit reports when taking an application for a loan or a credit card. If a scam artist is trying to steal your information to open fraudulent accounts a credit freeze will stop him in his tracks. Keep in mind that you will want to freeze your credit reports with all 3 credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Trans Union, and Experian. There is a small fee to freeze the reports per credit bureau, but that fee can be waived in most states if you have already been the victim of identity theft. It is also possible for you to contact the credit bureaus to remove the freeze from your reports if you desire to put your reports back into circulation in the future. When you unfreeze the reports additional fees may apply. Credit freezes are certainly a hassle, but nothing compares to the effectiveness of a credit freeze for preventing identity theft from occurring. You can consider a credit freeze the Fort Knox of credit protection strategies.
3. Step Three: Consider credit monitoring, but recognize the limitations.
Credit monitoring offers a reactive type of protection for your personal information. However, like the credit freeze, credit monitoring does not offer any protection from fraudulent charges on your debit cards or credit cards. Credit monitoring does not actually do anything to prevent identity theft either, but rather informs you that identity theft has already occurred. Target recently announced that it will be offering free Experian credit monitoring to the victims of its data breach for one year. Unfortunately, credit monitoring with one credit bureau is simply not enough to help identity theft victims properly monitor for fraudulent accounts since it is important to monitor all 3 credit bureaus for any unauthorized changes. (CLICK HERE to compare a list of credit report and credit score monitoring services currently available.) Being the last to know that your information has been stolen is not always terribly helpful. However, it is certainly better to know last than not to know at all.
About the Author: Michelle Black is an author and leading credit expert with over a decade and a half of experience in the credit industry. She specializes in the areas of credit reporting, credit scoring, identity theft, budgeting, and debt eradication. She is featured monthly at credit seminars, podcasts, and in print. You can connect with Michelle on Twitter and Instagram.