When you consider the sheer number of people affected by the data breach at Target (and Neiman Marcus and Michaels and who knows how many more), it’s pretty clear that as consumers we’re vulnerable. We spend money at stores and most of us use credit or debit cards — both of which leave electronic trails for crooks to follow.
Data is stolen from businesses of all sorts, more often than many people realize. The majority of customers are unlikely to suffer more than an inconvenience. But some could face a long ordeal with minefields that can take months or years to negotiate. It all depends on what information was stolen and whether your information is used to steal your identity.
That brings us to the offer Target made to provide a year of free identity theft protection to anyone who shopped there in the past year. Identity theft protection is generally a service that alerts you to changes in your credit history — most significantly the opening of new lines of credit that you didn’t apply for.
Generally, that sort of protection is helpful only if your Social Security number, which is needed to apply for credit, is in the hands of thieves. So far, there’s no indication that information was accessed at Target.
On the upside, the service is free and can be helpful if there’s a problem. Experian, the provider of the service, promises to work with victims to clear up credit damaged by fraud. On the flip side, it won’t prevent theft and you have to provide them your Social Security number.
Regardless of whether you choose to sign up, you still have to be vigilant checking your bills and going to AnnualCreditReport.com to get your credit history free once a year from each of the three big credit bureaus.Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.