Oc­to­ber is a spooky month for cy­ber­se­cu­rity aware­ness

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - BUSINESS - Michelle Sin­gle­tary The Color Of Money

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?”

Ready for an­other scary story?

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?

“If peo­ple visit a So­cial Se­cu­rity of­fice to cre­ate an ac­count, there is no need to re­move the se­cu­rity freeze,” Hin­kle said.

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.”

I’m still get­ting lots of ques­tions from read­ers con­cerned about the var­i­ous breaches, and I’m try­ing to an­swer as many as I can.

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.

One reader wrote: “I am hes­i­tant to do this by mail be­cause of all the in­for­ma­tion that will be sent. Is this some­thing I should worry about?”

David Blum­berg, se­nior direc­tor of pub­lic re­la­tions for Tran­sUnion an­swered: “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, on­site 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.”

An Equifax spokesper­son didn’t clar­ify what pro­tec­tions the com­pany takes when peo­ple mail in their doc­u­ments.

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.”

As scary as it may be to send your in­for­ma­tion in the mail given the sever­ity of re­cent breaches, you may have no other choice if you want a freeze.

You can take ex­tra precautions by send­ing your doc­u­men­ta­tion via cer­ti­fied mail or by FedEx, Tron­cale said.

Some peo­ple have asked me: Does one freeze work for all the bu­reaus? Un­for­tu­nately, the an­swer is no. To get full pro­tec­tion, you need to put on a freeze at all three credit bu­reaus, in­clud­ing a fourth smaller one, In­no­vis.

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

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