The announcement from Citigroup that it lost 3.9 million customer data files should cause all of us to take pause about the safety of our financial identity. This announcement comes only a couple of months after Bank of America lost information on 1.2 million customers. While there is nothing you can do to prevent your financial institution from losing computer data storage tapes, there are a number of proactive measures you can take to protect your identity.
1) Do not count on corporate America to notify you.
Only one state (California) has laws that require a company to notify individuals if their personal information has been possibly stolen. Therefore, you need to be proactive in monitoring your credit history.
2) Keep an eye on your credit.
Take advantage of the recent law that allows consumers to order a free copy of their credit report (will make it to the East Coast this spring). According to the Public Interest Research Group, one in four credit reports has errors that are serious enough to disqualify consumers from opening a bank account, purchasing a home home or evening getting a job! Citigroup is encouraging its customers to enroll in a free credit monitoring service for 90 days.
3) Take proactive steps with anything personal you do online.
For example, when paying your bills online, it is vital to make sure your computer is armed with the most up-to-date anti-virus software as well as some type of security or firewall protection. Most sites require a password and PIN which only work when your Internet browser is secure and up-to-date.
4) Do not leave your footprints.
Do not check the box that says save password and delete the cookies from your browser often. When banking online, do not save your information. You would not leave your drivers license and bank account information with a teller when you visit a bank, so do not leave this information on the Internet!
5) Consider identity theft insurance.
The major credit bureaus are now offering identity-theft insurance for around $100 a year. For example, Equifax will provide you with unlimited credit reports, alert you to major changes in your history and provide $20,000 worth of identity-theft insurance. Additionally, policy holders will have a special hotline they can call if their identity is stolen and are also entitled to up to $4,000 for lost salary in case you have to take a leave of absence to fix any credit-related issues. Before you sign up for this insurance, contact the provider of your homeowner's insurance as you may already be covered if your identity is stolen.
Citigroup on Monday said the lost data files only affect accounts with CitiFinancial. If you have one of these accounts and are concerned your identity may have been compromised, you should call your local CitiFinancial branch. Additionally, you can call the dedicated hotline Citi has set up at 1-866-452-2484.
How To Avoid Being 'Phished'
- Do not use Web links in a suspicious e-mail to access a Web page. Instead, call the company or type the main Web address directly into your browser.
- Do not disclose personal information online unless it is over a secure connection. You know a Web site is secure if it begins with https:// rather than http://.
- Download a free Web browser toolbar that will alert you if you try to access a known phishing Web site. The Anti-Phishing Working Group recommends Earthlink's ScamBlocker, which can be downloaded for free at http://www.earthlink.net/earthlinktoolbar.
- Check your credit card and bank statements and other online accounts regularly to ensure there are no discrepancies.
- Make sure your computer has the most up-to-date security patches.
- If you receive phishing e-mails, forward the entire message, header included, to the following places:
1) Anti-Phishing Working Group: email@example.com
2) Federal Trade Commission: firstname.lastname@example.org
Additionally, you should file a complaint with the Internet Fraud Complaint Center of the FBI (www.ifccfbi.gov) and notify the company that has been victimized.
Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Capital Management (arielmutualfunds.com) in Chicago, is Good Morning America's personal finance expert. Ariel associates Matthew Yale and Aimee Daley contributed to this report.