MONEY identity theft

Hackers and Identity Thieves Are Everywhere. Here’s Your Best Defense

Wallet exposing social security card
8.3 million: How many private records have been exposed to thieves so far this year. Olivia Locher; Prop styling by Linda Keil

Millions of private financial records have already been exposed this year. Follow this simple plan to stay safe.

Social Security numbers. Medical data. Credit card information. At least 8.3 million private records have been put at risk in 250 separate data breaches revealed this year, says the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. One upshot of the leaks (up 23% over 2013 through late April): greater awareness of the threat of identity theft. Follow this three-tiered plan to defend yourself.

1. Take Advantage of Free Tools

Visit annualcreditreport.com every four months to get a credit report from a different one of the three major reporting agencies, advises Ed ­Mierzwinski at advocacy organization U.S. PIRG. And sign up for any no-cost service your bank or credit card issuer has for notifying you of activity in your account.

2. Warn All Lenders

Afraid your data has already slipped out? Put a free 90-day fraud alert on all your credit reports by contacting Experian, Trans­Union, or Equifax, says Paul Stephens of the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. That tells companies to use extra caution before issuing credit in your name. For confirmed identity-theft victims, alerts last seven years.

3. Lock Down Your Credit

For top security, freeze your ­credit, advises ID-theft consultant Robert Siciliano. Opening new lines of credit will require your password. Visit each of the big three bureaus online to launch it. Costs—up to $30 to place a freeze and $12 to lift it—vary by state.

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