By Adam C. Johnson

Four initial steps to secure your data and remain informed of its use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The economic impact of COVID-19 has forced many Americans to reevaluate spending habits and reconcile plans. Some are refinancing mortgages, taking out loans, and adjusting budgets. These are trying and uncertain times, and the added hassle of incorrect, incomplete, or improper data use can exacerbate the situation.

So, what personal data can you access? How accurate is it? And how is it used? Now is the time to take control of your personal data, protect it, and become educated about its use.

Step 1: Monitor your Social Security Number

The U.S. Government originally issued Social Security Numbers to administer benefits by tracking earnings and employment data. But many companies now use them to assist with decisions about insurance, mortgage, and loan applications.

Most people keep their Social Security Numbers for their entire lives, making them a key data index. It’s wise to monitor your your Social Security data.

By creating a mySocialSecurity account with the Social Security Administration, you can review your earnings to determine estimated retirement benefits, examine the correctness of your data, and obtain a new Social Security card. Complete this step before proceeding to Step 3 to avoid the added hassle of unfreezing your credit before creating this account.

Step 2: Obtain copies of your data

Start with credit reports. Each year you can request free credit reports from the major credit bureaus. Data in these reports impacts your credit score, so ensure it’s correct in each report and consistent in all the reports.

Next, request a copy of your data report from the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange. The NCTUE maintains a record of TV, telecommunications, and utility account information for its members to allow them to make service decisions about prospective customers. Consider this your TV/internet/utility account-history report. While working from home, you rely on your cable provider for connectivity, so it’s important to address any delinquencies on this rap sheet to ensure consistent service.

As always, correct or dispute inaccuracies.

LexisNexis compiles consumer data from disparate sources and methods and provides its clients access to the amalgamated data to assist with business decisions. For instance, a bank may use LexisNexis’ products to confirm the identity of a loan applicant, the sources and amount of income, etc. to determine loan eligibility. Once you receive your Consumer Disclosure Report from LexisNexis, ensure your data is correct and file a formal dispute if you see irregularities.

In the inch-deep dossier, you may find your decades-old Hotmail or AOL email addresses (the good ol’ days) or your college-roommates’ data commingled with yours (yikes!). It’s best to clarify and correct any bizarre data.

You should also exercise your consumer rights with companies that provide free services (e.g., Google, Facebook, etc.) by accessing, downloading, reviewing, and editing your data. Remember to update your privacy settings too.

Step 3: Freeze your credit

One of the last things you may want to attend to during the COVID-19 pandemic is fraud. Freezing your credit report helps prevent unauthorized use of your credit, and each credit bureau has different methods to freeze/secure it:

Step 4: Opt-In to Opting Out

You’ll be glad you completed this step because it means fewer robocalls and less junk mail.

First, sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry. The FTC maintains this registry to inform law-abiding companies that registrants desire calls from real people whom they know. Some unwanted sales calls may slip through, so report those to the FTC.

A rule of thumb is to answer only calls from those you recognize. Also block random calls (refer to your smartphone’s settings) and report spam text messages to the FTC by copying the message and texting them to 7726 (SPAM). Be careful not to click on hyperlinks in text messages when copying them.

Second, it costs two dollars, but you can reduce or remove unsolicited mail from your mailbox by visiting DMAchoice.org. Removal can lasts ten years or longer, so read Direct Mail 101 before proceeding.

Out in to OptOutPrescreen.com. This industry website allows consumers to opt-out of credit and insurance offers, which stops the infamous you-need-a-new-credit-card and refinance-your-student-loans mail.

Take control of your data

Establish a cadence to complete these steps to ensure your data remains correct and complete and that you stay informed of its use.