Attention Target shoppers. Expect more, pay less has brought new meaning as an offer of free credit monitoring may not be enough to prevent identity theft, according to Consumer Reports. The offer of “free” credit monitoring may also give shoppers a false sense of security into believing they are totally protected from identity theft.
Following the massive security breach in December that impacted more than 110 million customers, Target offered “peace of mind” to customers worried about identity theft by providing a free credit monitoring service through one of the nation’s largest credit reporting agencies, Experian.
Here are step-by-step instructions on how to enroll in the Target credit monitoring program.
"The problem is that each of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian — can collect different information. So unless you're checking all of them, you can miss someone trying to steal your identity and open new credit," said Margot Gilman of Consumer Reports.
Target customers can register for the service — provided by Experian, regardless of whether they have been personally affected by the theft of customer data records at the discount store chain.
The credit monitoring service offered by Experian is an ongoing review of your current credit history. If an identity thief opens a new account using your name and personal information, you will receive an alert by email or text message. What the free credit monitoring service through Experian does not do is to monitor transactions — the actual, day-to-day purchases made on your credit and debit cards. That is something you must do yourself.
The Target data breach allegedly involves the use of active account information and not the opening of new accounts.
“So if I understand this correctly, I’m not protected from identity theft at all,” Bina Fink Kohl, herself an identity theft victim and Target shopper, told the Deseret News. “Sounds like another possible scam. Why would I give my information back to the very company that lost it to start with?”
To protect yourself from new accounts being opened without your permission, Gilman suggests placing a security freeze on their credit profile.
"A security freeze is one of the best protections," Gilman said. "It blocks access to your credit information and makes it more difficult for a crook to open a new account under your name."
There is a negative side to a total security freeze, though. Any inquiry into your credit history will be totally blocked, meaning an application for credit, goods, benefits, services and/or employment can be delayed or even denied. The credit freeze remains in place until the consumer removes it for a specific purpose or time frame.
More than 110 million shoppers have been impacted by the Target data breach. Each of them has been offered the free credit monitoring service for 12 months. But — according to Consumer Reports — the “free” service is riddled with defects and enticements.
- Once consumers enroll in the “free” credit monitoring service, they are enticed with an offer to purchase an Equifax and TransUnion credit report for up to $74 more to supplement the free report provided by Experian. “An Experian ad pitched me to buy my ‘total credit picture. Why wait? View all three of your credit reports and scores now’ for $14.95.”
- The type of free credit monitoring offered by Target monitors only one credit reporting agency — Experian — and not the credit history files maintained by Equifax and TransUnion. This a huge disadvantage, as the data reported from the three major credit bureaus can differ significantly across the country.
- The type of free credit monitoring offered by Target is “old school” as it monitors new account activity and inquiries rather than unauthorized charges to existing accounts. These services are already available through most credit and debit card issuers, especially the major banks and financial institutions.
- Some of the Experian ads exploit consumers who are ignorant of their rights under federal law. For instance, consumer protection laws already allow identity theft or potential identity theft victims to place a free 90-day fraud alert on their credit report. Placement of the 90-day fraud alert will allow consumers to obtain their credit reports from Equifax, Experian and TransUnion absolutely free.
In addition to or as an alternative to the Target credit monitoring service offered by Experian, impacted consumers may protect themselves from potential identity theft.
Periodically review your credit report
By keeping close tabs on your credit report at Equifax, Experian and TransUnion credit reporting agencies, you can detect signs of identity theft early. If you find an account not opened by you and have identified it as fraudulent, enter a dispute directly with the creditor as well as with the credit reporting agencies. You may be required to provide them with a valid police report and FTC Affidavit of Identity Theft.
You can obtain a free credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com or 877-322-8228.
Place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit report
Contact each of the credit reporting agencies and request a 90-day initial fraud alert. Not only will this trigger a free credit report but will advise potential creditors to investigate any application prior to issuing credit or providing services.
Equifax can be contacted at 800-525-6285, Experian at 888-397-3742 and TransUnion at 800-916-8800. Be sure to renew the alert every three months.
Freeze your credit report
Without access to your credit report, identity thieves are frozen in their tracks as creditors will not have access to your credit history. In many states, you are entitled to temporarily “freeze” access to your credit profile without cost if you are over 65 years of age or are a verified victim of identity theft. All others may be required to pay a small fee. Without access to your credit report, no lender will issue credit in your name.
Stop unsolicited credit card or insurance offers
Opting out of pre-screened approval offers for credit or insurance at www.optoutprescreen.com or 888-5OPT-OUT will stop most unsolicited applications and reduce the incidence of identity theft. Opting out refers to the process of removing your name, address and personal identifiers from lists supplied by the Equifax, Experian, TransUnion and Innovis credit reporting agencies to be used for preapproved/prescreened offers of credit or insurance.
“As a single mother, I can hardly afford to lose access to my debit and credit cards let alone become a victim of identity theft,” Target shopper Marina Sweat told the Deseret News. “I used to shop at Target all the time and although I now shop at Walmart, I’m not any less a target. I’m not happy with the way this whole data breach situation is being handled.”
Bill Lewis is principal of William E. Lewis Jr. & Associates in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a solutions-based professional consulting firm.