With the dust now settling after September’s stunning Equifax data breach, those who haven’t yet discovered their personal information on the “dark web” or seen fraudulent accounts opened in their name may be tempted to think they are out of the danger zone. After all, if you were a thief with that kind of information, wouldn’t you be rushing to exploit it?
Unfortunately, identity thieves are a patient bunch. They know that victims are on guard against fraud immediately after a major data breach, and they are content to wait months or sometimes even years before perpetrating their crimes.
I know a thing or two about how these scumbags operate. Long before I became a defense attorney or an OPM investigator, I was a police officer working in a wealthy community. There, identity theft was a fairly regular, if not daily, call for service. Sometimes we got lucky – for example, arresting someone on unrelated charges and discovering a hoard of stolen mail or credit cards in the process. But those were mostly the low-hanging fruit: the drug addicts looking to score some quick meth money, or the unsophisticated “mailbox divers” who fished letters out of postal boxes under cover of darkness. The type of criminals involved in the Equifax breach were then, and remain now, extremely difficult to catch. That’s because they hide behind things like fake IP addresses and the lawless dysfunction of third world countries – hurdles that are often insurmountable for the local law enforcement agencies that handle the bulk of identity theft cases in the United States.
Credit history and complacency
After seeing first-hand the havoc and misery wrought by identity thieves, the Equifax data breach was simply another reminder to never become complacent. This is particularly true for security clearance holders, whose security clearance (and career) depends on maintaining a favorable credit history. The day you become complacent in monitoring and protecting your personal information is the day that identity thieves may finally decide to strike, leaving behind a trail of debts and other obligations in your name. Of course, when U.S. government security officials find out about these debts, they’ll give you the opportunity to rebut or mitigate them before kicking you to the curb as a security risk. Identity theft is certainly a valid defense.
But proving the debts aren’t yours isn’t always easy; at minimum, you’re looking at a tremendous amount of wasted time, stress, attorney fees, and general aggravation to clear your name. Oh, and that doesn’t include the time, stress, and attorney fees required to resolve any civil cases against you, like repossession or eviction.
The good news is that there is a relatively easy and effective way of preventing these types of terrible repercussions: a security freeze on your credit profiles with each of the three major credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion – and, yes, Equifax). You should also make a habit of pulling your credit report annually to confirm the validity of information it contains, something the Federal Trade Commission shows you how to do for free here.
I wrote about this previously to explain why I wasn’t signing up for OPM’s identity monitoring service after their breach. Identity monitoring is fine, but its reactive and still requires your intervention to clean up identity theft messes after they occur. I don’t want anyone opening up fraudulent accounts in my name to begin with, so a proactive approach is much more comforting.
The only downside to implementing security freezes is that you will need to temporarily lift them during each regularly scheduled re-investigation for your security clearance so adjudicators can review your credit history. Yes, it is an inconvenience and a slight cost (some of the credit bureaus charge a nominal fee) but the cost-benefit analysis still heavily skews in favor of a security freeze when you compare the worst-case scenarios under the alternative.
You can find more information on how to obtain a security freeze on your credit profile by visiting each of the three, major credit bureau websites and searching for the term “security freeze.” Depending upon your situation, you may be able to complete the process entirely online and in just a few minutes. Just bear in mind that a credit freeze is tied to an individual credit profile; if you’re married, you’ll need to complete the same process for your spouse also.
This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situatio