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For years I have urged everyone to protect themselves from becoming victims of identity theft, the illegal acquisition and use of personal, private information by criminals. While that may have been a laudable enterprise, the reality is that identity theft is basically not preventable or avoidable. Identity theft occurs in this country every two seconds; more than 43,000 times a day. To put this in perspective, Vermont has a population of 625,000 people, a number that would be surpassed in less than 15 days. (If you live in a neighboring state, just do the math.)

If you are familiar with pyramid scams, you are probably saying — Inconceivable! That means the whole population in just 2 1/2 years. Sadly, since I began this crusade the number of identity thefts is greater than twice the population of our country. How can that be? The reality is that most Americans have had their identities compromised multiple times. Often this was due to data breaches at a wide range of merchants, services, and government agencies — Amazon, Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Equifax, The Home Depot, The Internal Revenue Service, Rutland Regional Medical Center, TJ Maxx, and the list goes on. Basically, if you bought items with credit cards or had medical services, or paid taxes your identity has been compromised, exposed, repeatedly. The breach may be less subtle when you receive a phone call or email and provide personal data to an imposter.

There are many other ways your data reaches the wrong hands but one way does not involve theft or impostors. Self-inflicted data breaches through the posting of personal information in social media. Example: Here’s a picture of my daughter Joanie getting her degree from MIT in astrophysics. Innocent? Maybe but you have provided a picture that can be scanned and placed on a fake ID, a school, academic major, year of graduation, and her name. Example: We decided to take a well-earned vacation and will be in Hawaii for the next three weeks, which translates to “The house is empty, come rob us!”

Since you cannot stop data breaches, what can you do? First, limit the information you share with strangers including all of those “friends” you made online. Next, never provide personal information of any kind on the phone or online unless you can verify the legitimacy of the caller or sender as well as their need to have your information. Just these two steps will go a long way to add protection.

As far as data breach protection, limit what the criminal can do with your data. Often, the criminal act is to use your information to obtain a credit card or loan, or to open an account. Your best protection is to activate freezes at the major credit bureaus. A credit freeze effectively locks your credit report preventing others from using your financial information to commit a crime. Credit reports are essential to obtaining loans and credit, purchasing property, or leasing a car. Lenders will not assume risk unless they can be assured of repayment, and inability to get the report due to a freeze will block fraudulent applications. What if you want to take out a loan, refinance a mortgage, lease a car? You simply “thaw” the report so your lender has access and then re-freeze it.

Credit report freezes are free and so are thaws. You need to contact each credit bureau individually: Equifax, 800- 525-6285, www.equifax.com; Experian, 888-397-3742, www.experian.com; Innovis, 800-540-2505, www.innovis.com; TransUnion, 800-680-7289, www.transunion.com. Be prepared to provide information including Social Security number, birthdate, and other demographics. Also be ready to answers questions related to your past use of credit including lenders and loan payments. Once completed, be sure the same is done for all members of your household. Speed is of the essence since much of your personal information is already in the hands of criminals.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. He hosts a CATV program, "Mr. Scammer," distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland — www.gnat-tv.org. Contact him at egreenblott@aarp.org.


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