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When you slide your credit or debit card through an electronic reader to pay for purchases, does it seem safe? Most of us would not use our cards if we thought our financial security was at risk.
In January of 2007, a news story broke related to Marshalls and TJ Maxx, retail chains owned by TJX Companies. During the previous six months, including the busy 2006 holiday shopping period, hackers penetrated Marshalls and TJ Maxx computers accessing credit and debit card information belonging to thousands of shoppers. The company waged a crisis management campaign, assuring the public their computer system problems were corrected and the public could feel safe shopping in their stores.
Fast forward to August 2008, 18 months later. This week we learned the Department of Justice busted an international ring of hackers, which accessed confidential financial information of 40 million shoppers. Leading the list of penetrated computers worldwide: retail giant TJX Companies. Their stores include A.J. Wright, Bob’s Stores, HomeGoods, HomeSense, Marshalls, TJ Maxx, TK Maxx, and Winners. Additional retail chain computers accessed by the hackers: Barnes and Noble, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Dave & Busters, DSW, Forever 21, Office Max, and Sports Authority.
The sophisticated software activated by these cyber-thieves scurried around gathering up account numbers, PINs, passwords, and financial information from retail customers – 40 million of them.
What can you do to prevent being an identity theft victim? First, limit the number of credit cards you use so it’s easier to manage your accounts. And guard your personal information as the treasure it is. You can build excellent credit with only four accounts. However, don’t close accounts that are currently open because around 35 percent of your credit score is based on history. Simply pay off the accounts and secure the cards in a safe deposit box or other location where they cannot be stolen by a thief. Every month, carefully review your credit and debit card charges. If anything appears to be wrong, immediately contact the issuing bank.
A few months ago, I discovered a debit charge for $9.95. It was such a small amount that I almost ignored it. However, I didn’t recognize the company name or location. When I called the phone number listed with the charge, it seemed to be a house phone. The Fraud Department of my bank told me this was a company that came to their attention during the week I called them. It turned out this thief made several small charges. No one reported them. Then he ran very large debits on the accounts that ignored the smaller charges. By reporting the peculiar little debit before he made a large withdrawal, the bank was able to wait for him to try to execute a larger charge on my account. He was arrested and stopped.
From their Fraud Section, there is now an excellent Department of Justice Identity Theft resource guide available. Written in an easy-to-understand style, it provides information and instructions for handling a breadth of identity fraud problems.
In addition, you can easily freeze your credit information so no one can access any information about you without your permission. If you’ve been a victim of fraud, the credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – will provide security freeze services at no charge. However, you must request a security freeze from each credit bureau.
If you establish security freezes as a preventive measure, you will incur a small fee each time you allow access to your credit file. Some consider this a hassle. For many of us, knowing our information is locked provides a sense of security that makes the minor inconveniences worth the effort required. Since security freezes prevent unauthorized access to your accounts, they eliminate the need for any account monitoring services.
If you suspect fraudulent activity, you need to immediately order copies of your credit reports from the three major credit reporting agencies through AnnualCreditReport.com. There will be no charge unless you’ve ordered copies (through them) within the last year. You are entitled to one free credit report per year from each credit reporting agency.
Technology makes it much easier to access and manage information. Unfortunately, the same technology carries opportunities for criminals to steal. Remain vigilant as you manage your personal accounts and information. Take action to defend yourself from becoming a victim of menacing cyber-criminals just as you proactively protect yourself from street thugs.