Singletary: Scary times for financial information

By

Published:

 

Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas. Reach her in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071; or singletarym@washpost.com.

The irony is not lost on me — nor should it be on you — that National Cyber Security Awareness Month falls at the same time we celebrate Halloween.

When it comes to money, one of the scariest things happening right now is the insecurity of our financial information.

The fast-food chain Sonic just became the latest company to reveal that hackers gained access to customers’ data. This time it was debit and credit card information.

Meanwhile, Equifax has revealed that 145.5 million consumer accounts were compromised by a data breach. And Yahoo announced last week that every single account it had was compromised in a data breach that occurred in 2013.

The Department of Homeland Security and the National Cyber Security Alliance launched the annual cyber security awareness campaign in 2004. And there’s a lot of focus right now on what consumers can do to protect themselves. Here’s one thing I’ve suggested: Create a “my Social Security” account. This is an important portal to your Social Security benefits.

“The most secure action a person can take is to create their own ‘my Social Security’ account,” said Mark Hinkle, acting press officer for the Social Security Administration.

With the information stolen in so many of these breaches, identity thieves could beat you to the site and apply for retirement, disability or Medicare benefits in your name.

“I tried to set up a Social Security account but couldn’t,” one reader wrote following my recommendation. “Is this because I have placed a security freeze on my credit files?”

This person couldn’t set up an account because Social Security uses information in your credit file to verify your identity. If the file is frozen because of a security freeze, the agency can’t find what it needs to ask questions to confirm that you are who you say you are.

The agency uses what it calls an “identity services provider.”

Want to guess who that is?

Equifax currently has the $4.3 million contract for one year to verify people’s identity.

Since information was stolen from Equifax, I asked Hinkle if the agency would continue to use the credit bureau.

“We are currently evaluating this as we obtain more information from Equifax,” he said.

Supposedly, neither you nor an identity thief can create a Social Security account if you have a freeze in place. But are you willing to take that frightening chance?

On the home page for www.ssa.gov, click the link for “Contact Us” to find a nearby office using your ZIP code. To set up an online account, click the link for “my Social Security.”

Lots of people are trying to place a credit freeze on their files. Some who encounter problems doing so online are being asked to mail various documents to prove their identity.

David Blumberg, senior director of public relations for TransUnion, said: “Mail received by TransUnion is processed through our contact center in a secure facility that is accessible only to employees specially trained to handle inbound consumer mail. This mail is digitally imaged, and the hard copies are destroyed within 10 days via secure, on-site shredding and document destruction. After a freeze is processed, we send the consumer written correspondence via the USPS to confirm the freeze and provide a PIN the individual can use to temporarily lift or permanently remove the file in the future.”

Michael Troncale, senior manager for public relations for Experian said: “When we are unable to sufficiently match identification online or by telephone, we request additional documentation in order to verify the individual’s identity. We do so as an additional precaution in an effort to protect the consumer.”

These are some spooky times. For additional tips and resources, go to staysafeonline.org.


Michelle Singletary welcomes comments and column ideas. Reach her in care of The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071; or singletarym@washpost.com.