NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) -
The personal data of nearly 50 million Americans have been exposed this year. As many as one in six people are now vulnerable to identity theft.
What's to blame? Sometimes it's carelessness. Citigroup, for instance, says a vendor can't locate the financial records of nearly 4 million clients. The tapes had been shipped in a cardboard box like a pair of chinos being returned to Lands' End.
Other times it's security at the likes of CardSystems, the credit-processing firm whose database was hacked into, putting another 40 million people at risk. Still other breaches occur because of sloppy credit-card issuers, who seem willing to open a new account for anyone with a pulse (and sometimes not even that). And then there's Congress, which diddles while your digits remain at risk.
It's time for all of us to concede that our data ultimately cannot be defended -- which is why it's only a matter of time before your identity is compromised in some way, big or small.
The solution doesn't lie in better corporate security or more vigilant card issuers, although those would help. It's in making sure that if your data does go missing, it can't be used against you. You should have the simple right to request a credit freeze, which stops anyone from looking at your credit report, making it next to impossible for a thief to open a fraudulent account.
Congress has been pounding tables to look responsive but to date has shown little appetite for giving you that ultimate protection: a credit freeze any time you want one.
This may have something to do with the fact that the financial services industry, which generally opposes freezes, ranks first in campaign contributions to House and Senate members.
There are, in the meantime, protective steps you can take. But instead of buying ID theft insurance and credit monitoring services, "focus on the cheap and easy ways to keep an eye on your accounts," says Robert Gellman, a privacy consultant in Washington, D.C. For example:
Getcha free credit report!
As of Sept. 1, residents of all 50 states can get one free credit report a year from each of the three credit bureaus. Request one every four months, not all three at once, to create your own free credit monitoring service. Go to annualcreditreport.com.
Guard your number
When a business asks for your SSN, offer your driver's license number instead. If you carry a Medicare card, make a photocopy and black out all but the last four digits.
Invest in a crosscut shredder, making it harder for Dumpster divers to put your records back together again.
This may be one of those rare moments when voters could overpower lobbyists.
"Imagine if the 50 million people put at risk this year let Congress know they want better safeguards," says Susanna Montezemolo, a policy analyst for Consumers Union.
Financialprivacynow.org has a sample e-mail you can send that demands more control over your own data. Your plan of attack couldn't be any easier.
For more on fighting ID theft, click here.
Click here for what to do if your data has been "lost."