Cyber Security: Proactive Measures for Safeguarding Your Personal Data

Marriott, Yahoo, JPMorgan Chase, Target, Equifax, Facebook – these are only a few of the well-known companies to have experienced a major breach of their client data in the last few years. In these examples, the sheer number of records compromised was big enough to make the news but the risk of personal data exposure is not limited to large companies. Government agencies, educational institutions and healthcare organizations are also common targets for cyber thieves.

Given the growing frequency of data breaches, we strongly encourage all of our clients to take action to protect your digital information. Here are several measures we recommend. The options below are listed in order from the most to least complex:

1. Freeze your credit data at all four major credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion, Experian, and Innovis)

This is the most extensive measure you can take towards protecting your personal identity but it is also the most difficult to unwind and it adds a layer of inconvenience to future credit transactions.

Freezing prevents your credit report from being released and thus blocks any outside attempts at applying for credit under your name. Once you have put a freeze on your credit, it can only be unfrozen by using a personal identification number (PIN) assigned to you by each agency. It is important to keep track of your PIN for each bureau as resetting a PIN can be done but it is a time consuming process. To freeze your credit, go online or call each agency directly.

Be sure to set up a freeze with all four credit agencies in order to fully protect your information. There is no cost to freeze or unfreeze credit data.

Do not confuse a credit freeze with a credit lock. You receive the greatest protection from freezing your credit. A credit lock is a service some credit bureaus provide for a fee. You will see this option promoted on their websites but it does not have the additional PIN protection layer provided by a freeze.

Be aware that unfreezing your data adds time and steps to any future process where your credit information is required (within the purchase of a property, a new credit line, setting up utilities at a new residence, background checks within a career change, etc.). That said, freezing is one of the most proactive step you can take towards safeguarding your personal credit data and most cyber security experts consider the inconvenience to be well worth the trade-off in data protection.

2. Set up fraud alerts

This ensures you are notified and asked to confirm permission anytime a new credit account is opened in your name. It’s smart to do this for all credit and debit cards as well. You can set up a fraud alert with each of the main credit agencies using the same contact information above. When you request a fraud alert with Equifax, TransUnion or Experian, that agency is legally required to notify the other two agencies. You will need to make a separate request with Innovis.

Like freezing, setting up a fraud alert is free but it can be cumbersome. The alert is only good for one year after which you have to renew for an additional year to maintain the service. The credit agencies will not notify you when the one-year time frame has lapsed so maintaining alerts requires some vigilance on your part. For victims of identity theft, you can apply for an extended fraud alert that remains in place for up to seven years. You will need a police or Identity Theft Report to qualify for this extended service.

In some companies, credit monitoring is provided as an employee benefit. It is also included as a rider on some homeowner insurance policies so you might want to check and see if you already have access to this service in multiple ways.

3. Monitor your credit

You are entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the four major agencies. Rather than requesting all four at once, you may want to spread them out across the year so that you are checking your credit information once every quarter. Review it closely for any activity that looks suspicious.

Again, you may already have access to a service for monitoring so check with your employer or insurance agent to find out.

In Conclusion

In addition to the above, we should all continuously check credit card statements and bank statements for any unusual activity. The first signs of identity theft can often be found there. Be aware too that you may have relatives or friends who will need assistance with this. Thieves are happy to use your child’s or elderly parent’s data to open a new line of credit and sometimes those situations are harder to immediately recognize.

All combined, these steps do take some upfront time and ongoing diligence but we have entered a new era of cyber threats that requires all of us to be more proactive. While no measures are 100% foolproof, these are some of the best options for protecting personal data.

For further suggestions on this and other cyber security issues, see our recent three-part blog series, Staying Safe Online. The financial toolbox section of our website also includes steps to take if you become a victim of identity theft. You can read more about signs of identity theft as well as detailed information on credit freezes, fraud alerts and credit monitoring on the Federal Trade Commission’s website(

The material shown is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as accounting, legal, or tax advice.  Altair Advisers LLC is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission; registration does not imply a certain level of skill or training.  While efforts are made to ensure information contained herein is accurate, Altair Advisers cannot guarantee the accuracy of all such information presented.