February was Data Privacy Month, and though it may be behind us, consumers would be smart to consider every day as Data Privacy Day. From Anthem to Target and Otto Pizza to The Works Bakery Cafe, data breaches are becoming increasingly prevalent in Maine and across the country.

Legislative leadership in Maine is concerned with the financial security of our residents, particularly our older population. In 2013, the Maine Legislature passed a joint resolution recognizing Jan. 28 as Data Privacy Day, joining the many states and 28 countries that have made similar resolutions.

The resolution encourages all members of the community to learn about data privacy, the specific steps one can take to protect the privacy of their personal information, and to discuss data privacy with vulnerable citizens throughout Maine. It also calls upon businesses and agencies to better protect the privacy and security of their customers’ sensitive information.

In light of existing vulnerabilities in data security, the American Bankers Association has pushed Congress to pass data security legislation that holds retailers and others to higher and more consistent standards in order to safeguard customer information.

Last month in Maine, the Insurance and Financial Services Committee heard testimony regarding legislation that AARP Maine, a Maine Fraud Prevention Alliance member, introduced to amend the state’s credit freeze law to reduce the cost of a freeze to Mainers.

Fellow alliance member Jane Carpenter, CEO of Maine Identity Services, LLC, testified at the public hearing, and the Maine Council on Aging and the University Credit Union submitted written testimony. This bill, L.D. 382, is sponsored by Sen. Rodney Whittemore, R-Skowhegan.

A credit freeze is one of the best ways consumers can protect themselves from identity theft. Currently, it costs Mainers $10 to freeze credit with each of the three credit bureaus; $30 total. Freezing credit files protects this sensitive information and helps to prevent identities from being stolen.

The fee is waived for identity theft victims who can provide a copy of a police report, investigative report or complaint to a law enforcement agency. L.D. 382 would eliminate the fees, making this tool more accessible.

Considering the importance of keeping one’s data and credit safe, we encourage all Mainers to be proactive. Many individuals are unaware of a data breach until they are contacted by their bank or credit union. However, just by carefully monitoring monthly bank and credit card statements, consumers are more likely to spot a problem.

According to Carpenter, of Maine Identity Services, there are no guarantees that a hacker can be stopped from using your information once they have obtained it. Carpenter estimates that as many as 750,000 Mainers have become victims of identity theft over the last 18 months, yet by reacting quickly when you first learn about a breach, you can help decrease the chance of becoming a victim of this crime.

Along with initiating a credit freeze, there are other preventative measures one can take. Specifically, the Maine Fraud Prevention Alliance developed the “DASH Fraud” program, whose acronym is based upon four easy-to-remember measures to prevent fraud and protect information:

DELETE unsolicited emails and texts – no financial services company will ask for personal information via email. Never click on links; instead, go directly to websites by typing in the known Web address.

 ASK for permits from door-to-door salespeople – anyone involved in transient selling must have a permit. If in question, call your local municipality or law enforcement.

 SHRED personal information and documents, as well as junk mail – including pre-approved credit offers and prize offerings.

 HANG UP on unsolicited calls – many calls involve “claiming a prize,” wiring money or confirming personal information. If it appears legitimate, get the name and phone number of the company and conduct research. Never give personal information to a stranger.

Individuals can also sign up to receive free “Watchdog Alerts” through AARP’s Fraud Watch Network to stay up to date on the latest scam alerts – go to aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork, which offers excellent resources and prevention tips.

We encourage everyone to take the necessary steps to protect their personal data. We also urge our legislators to support L.D. 382 to eliminate the current credit freeze costs, which will arm Maine residents with a more accessible way to protect their identities.