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If you’re among the millions of Americans who received Target’s free credit monitoring offer email recently, you might be wondering how to react. After all, getting the news that your personal information has been stolen by a hacker is alarming enough; now Target is asking that you give even more detailed information to a couple of websites. So what should you do? Here are a few essential questions and answers.

Why Did I Get This Email?

Target says hackers stole 40 million credit cards from its systems during a stretch from Nov. 27-Dec. 15. If you shopped at Target’s retail stores during that time frame, criminals may have stolen your account number. In addition, Target also says criminals also stole data on 70 million Americans that the firm had obtained during “the normal course of business,” including names, mailing addresses and email addresses. There is almost certainly overlap between these two lists of stolen data, and many consumers who say they haven’t shopped at Target in years – or ever – are among the victims who are now getting notices from Target. In other words, anyone can be a victim. Target says it is sending free credit monitoring offers to every impacted customer for which they have an email address.

What Should I Do?

Take Target’s offer. It’s a valuable service and it’s free, particularly given the ever-expanding web of victims in this hacker attack. But do it carefully, and understand that there may be upsells in the process. Bottom line: You can get the free credit monitoring without signing up for any additional products.

What’s the Safest Way to Redeem the Free Credit Monitoring Service?

1. Go to your address bar of your browser and manually type CreditMonitoring.Target.com (that is, DON’T click on any links in the email). Fill out your name and email address there.

2. Obtain the redemption code Target sends you. Copy it to your computer clipboard. NOTE: I’ve heard multiple reports that this email is landing in people’s junk/spam folder. Look there!

3. Manually type ProtectMyID.com/target into your browser’s address bar, bringing you to Experian’s website for Target victims. Paste the redemption code into the correct box. Fill out the other identifying information, including (gulp!) your Social Security number. Yup, you will have to provide this to get the free, valuable credit monitoring service.  You’ll also have to answer those out-of-wallet questions like, “Which of these companies holds your mortgage?” These questions help verify your identity based off of your credit profile.

4. Once you are authenticated, look at your credit report and check for errors. Set up free text alerts so you are notified if someone opens credit in your name, for free!

5. Note that Experian also offers Target victims a chance to buy their credit score. There is no need to buy your score in reaction to the Target leak. You can get a breakdown of your credit with the Credit Report Card, a free tool that updates your credit scores every month so you can watch for changes.

Is It a Bad Idea to Share My Social Security Number?

It’s good to be skeptical when a website asks for detailed personal information. But in order to authenticate you, Experian requires you to hand over the data, and it’s a good thing they ask. We wouldn’t want Experian making it easy for criminals to sign up as you and get access to your credit report. The key, of course, is making sure you really are responding to Target’s offer, and really do land on Experian’s site, when filling out the information. It’s likely we will see an avalanche of fake emails masquerading as offers from Target, Experian, or others claiming to have information about the Target situation. That’s why consumers should manually type in the addresses to these websites.

Why Should You Take Up Target on Its Offer?

Because it’s good to check your credit report often, and it’s great to do it for free. If you’ve never had monitoring, you will learn about how your credit report works, and that’s a good thing. While you can get a free copy of your report from each of the major credit reporting agencies every year from AnnualCreditReport.com, most Americans don’t bother, so this is a great opportunity. The text message alert system works well, too, and it’s well worth the few moments required to set it up.

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Image: Eric Hood

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