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NC attorney general: Data breaches occurring at ‘alarming rate’

Data breaches are happening at an “alarming rate” these days with the development of new technology, and North Carolina officials say there are ways to protect one’s identity before it’s too late.

Speaking Thursday at the Better Business Bureau in Ballantyne, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper said identity theft costs the national economy billions of dollars and can cost individuals not just money but also their security and creditworthiness.

Identity theft occurs when someone steals your personal information, pretends to be you and commits fraud in your name. The Attorney General’s Office estimates that about 400,000 North Carolinians are victims of identity theft each year.

More than 7,200 breaches involving information of more than 7.2 million North Carolina consumers have been reported to the Attorney General’s Office since 2005, when a state law took effect that requires businesses and government agencies to report breaches.

Two such consumers are Diana and Lee Rainey, residents of Charlotte for more than three decades. A hacker this year somehow obtained the Raineys’ personal information to file a tax return in Lee Rainey’s name. The two quickly filed a police report and informed the Internal Revenue Service and major credit bureaus about the breach.

The Raineys consider themselves lucky to have caught the breach early, adding that the only notable inconvenience now is waiting for their IRS refund check.

The BBB and Cooper’s office say “one of the best ways” consumers can protect against ID theft is by using a security freeze, which blocks access to credit history without explicit permission, meaning a criminal who has stolen someone’s identity wouldn’t be able to use it to open accounts.

To combat the identity theft of children, both the BBB and Cooper’s office support N.C. House Bill 607, which would require major credit bureaus to create and freeze a child’s credit report when requested by a parent. The proposed law passed the N.C. Senate on Monday.

“No one knows about (identity theft) until that child becomes of age and applies for that first credit card and boom – they find they have been a victim of identify theft, they have bad credit when they haven’t done anything,” Cooper said.

Identity theft is difficult to track on a year-to-year basis, because it’s an underreported crime, and when it is reported, sometimes it is years after the initial breach, said Noelle Talley, the state attorney general’s public information officer.

Still, security breaches – from stolen laptops to hacking – can give identity thieves access to personal information such as Social Security numbers and bank account information, Talley said.

Figures from the N.C. Attorney General’s Office show that already in 2015, the personal data of some 1.1 million state residents has been compromised by security breaches – much of that from the breach targeting health insurer Anthem, which affected more than 775,000 North Carolina customers. That figure is up from just over 380,000 affected statewide in 2014 and 1.56 million in 2013, when the Target data breach occurred.

Cooper said taking action right away after a breach is imperative.

“The longer it goes without doing something about it, the more problems you have, the more debt that has built up and the more difficult it is to prove the negative: ‘I did not do this,’” Cooper said.

Tom Bartholomy, president of Charlotte’s BBB, outlined several ways to “virtually and physically” protect against identity theft, including shredding personal documents, using unique passwords, checking your credit report regularly and setting up bank alerts.

Consumers can find more information on ID theft at www.ncdoj.gov or by calling 877-5-NO-SCAM (566-7226).

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

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