(BPT) - Fueled by the recent epidemic of data breaches, identity theft has become a major concern for millions of Americans. Major companies like Target, Home Depot, eBay, Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield and dozens of others have experienced data breaches affecting millions of consumers over the past two years.
Experts have found a strong correlation between being affected by a data breach and the risk of identity fraud. Fully two-thirds of victims of identity fraud in 2014 also received a data breach notification according to Javelin Strategy & Research. Not surprisingly, in February, identity theft was named the top consumer complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for the 15th consecutive year. In March, FTC Commissioner Terrell McSweeny affirmed these concerns citing a recent study that found that Americans are 'more concerned about ID theft than violent crime, natural disasters or terrorism.'
While inaction on data security issues by policymakers and businesses has exacerbated the problem, there are effective steps consumers can take right now to protect themselves. 'Many actions don't require a lot of time or energy but they can go a long way in helping to reduce the risk of identity theft,' says John Breyault, vice president of public policy for telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League (NCL).
Steps NCL promotes to consumers include:
* Use strong passwords that are different for each website
* Enable two-factor authentication when possible (this is the code sent via text to your mobile phone which you use to log into a website)
* Secure your home wireless router and network
* Don't click on links in emails or download attachments you aren't expecting
* Know what companies store your personal data and limit what you share
'If you have been notified about a data breach, don't sit by,' says Breyault. 'Change your passwords, watch out for suspicious email and take advantage of credit monitoring or identity theft protection services if they are offered. Better yet, consider putting a credit freeze on your credit reports with the three major bureaus.'
NCL is quick to assert that while there are steps consumers can take individually to safeguard their personal information, more needs to be done at the national level by Washington officials in the fight against hackers who steal information and identities for financial gain.
Advocates are raising the alarm about the increased risk of identity fraud stemming from data breaches. 'Businesses are profiting handsomely from the unprecedented amount of consumer data they are now collecting,' said John Breyault, vice president of public policy for telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League (NCL). 'Unfortunately, when they fail to protect that data, it's consumers who are often the ones harmed when crooks use their information to commit identity theft.'
FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez told Congress last year that, 'Never has the need for legislation been greater. With reports of data breaches on the rise, and with a significant number of Americans suffering from identity theft, Congress needs to act.'
Groups like NCL are pushing the federal government to dedicate more resources to combating these kinds of crimes. 'Agencies like the Federal Trade Commission should work with businesses that store consumer information to share information and strategies on how to better prevent hackers from breaching their systems,' says Breyault. Specifically, NCL has called on the FTC to convene workshops specifically focused on data security. Such events would bring together stakeholders to begin the process of turning the alarming trend of mega-data breach around.
For more information, visit www.fraud.org or NCLNet.org.