|CNN's Gerri Willis shares tips on what you should do to protect yourself from identity theft.|
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Have you seen ChoicePoint in the headlines? What is it anyway? As many as 145,000 consumers may be the victims of identity theft after a company few have ever heard of exposed their personal information to criminals.
Is nothing sacred these days? What do you need to learn from this expose? Here are today's top five tips.
1. Know the story.
ChoicePoint is a personal information clearinghouse that provides insurance companies, employers and the government with information on consumers. The company is making headlines because it put information into the hands of fraud artists posing as legitimate business officials.
The company says the information taken on victims could include: name, address, social security numbers, drivers' license numbers, abbreviated credit reports, bankruptcy filings, professional licenses, and real property data. One Los Angeles woman just filed a lawsuit against ChoicePoint for putting her identity at risk.
How is it that a company has the right to sell your information? It happens often, my friends. However, it often works in our favor. ChoicePoint has more than 19 billion separate pieces on consumers.
The government uses information gathered by ChoicePoint and other databases to monitor terrorist activity, while banks, employers, and landlords use it to run credit checks on you.
It's not always a bad thing that your private information is available to businesses. However, according to Ed Mierzwinski, Consumer Program director at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, it shouldn't be that easy for businesses, especially fraudulent ones, to get consumers' information.
Having your information stolen can really cost you. While you aren't responsible for debts rung up by identity thieves, you will still spend time, energy and money to clear your name.
2. Don't panic.
Chances are you weren't affected. There is no need to panic that your identity was stolen unless you receive a letter from the company. ChoicePoint is sending letters to all those exposed by the end of this week.
Be careful not to toss out any mail before opening it: Apparently these letters are arriving in very generic, unsuspecting envelopes. If you hear nothing, you may be eager to check your credit report anyway. That's fine. But remember, the last thing this situation needs is an epidemic.
3. As a victim...
The letters sent to victims advise them to call ChoicePoint, which has arranged for a dedicated customer service team through Experian to assist in the matter.
The operators will help those consumers order their credit reports from all three bureaus (Equifax.com, TransUnion.com, and Experian.com) and set up a year's worth of credit monitoring and fraud alerts.
By putting a fraud alert on your credit report, the bureau is supposed to notify you when any company tries to access your records. On your part, keep monitoring your reports, as some consumers are not always alerted when a company is asking for their credit files. Additionally, call your credit card companies and banks and ask them to put passwords up to help verify all purchases made are only made by you.
The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is also advising the 34,114 victims in California to take advantage of their state's law which allows consumers to set a security freeze on their credit reports. No one but you and companies you currently hold credit with can access your files.
Since credit card companies need to access these reports to approve any new accounts, freezing them puts up a roadblock for any identity thief trying to set up 30 credit cards under your name. Californians can put a freeze up for free with a police or authority report, or can pay to do it as an extra precaution on their credit. To find out more information about this law, click here.
Texas also allows victims to freeze their reports, so check out the Texas Attorney General's Web site for information.
If you are a victim and live in neither state, talk to TransUnion, which is the most consumer-friendly of all the credit bureaus. They have allowed identity fraud victims in the past to put a freeze on their reports and may do so for ChoicePoint victims, according to Sheila Gordon, director of Victim Services at the Identity Theft Resource Center.
4. Put up your guard.
None of the victims of this crime could have done anything to prevent it.
"You can only take steps to minimize your vulnerability," according to Jordana Beebe, communications director at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, who recommends consumers get off pre-approved credit card lists, invest in a shredder, and keep an eye on their credit reports to avoid day-to-day identity theft. Not all identity theft is done electronically, a lot of these thieves are dumpster divers.
Check your credit reports every six months with the major 3 bureaus I mentioned above. Ironically, the credit bureaus are the ones selling your name to the credit card companies that flood your mailbox with offers. You can opt to get off their lists by calling: 1-888-5-OPTOUT.
5. Talk to the state.
If it hadn't been for California, this whole mess might not have even been exposed, according to Mierzwinski. California law requires businesses to inform consumers when their personal information has been compromised.
While there is talk that some action may be taken on a federal level to further protect consumers, take it to the state too. Talk to your state legislators also about creating a law like California's that informs consumers when they are at risk.
More 5 Tips? Click here ...
Also ask about security freezes for victims of identity theft like they have in California and Texas and will soon have in Vermont and Louisiana.
Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.