Equifax, one of the big-three credit reporting companies, recently reported that a data breach occurred between mid-May and July of 2017. According to Equifax, 143 million Americans had their names, Social Security numbers, and birthdates compromised during that time.
That is about 45% of the population of the United States. Equifax has an online tool to check if you were one of the 143 million affected, but there have been widespread reports of its inaccuracy.
Equifax’s business model involves compiling credit data and personal information on everybody it can. The reality is, if you have any credit, there is a good chance you were affected by this breach.
What Can You Do?
Once your personal data has been compromised, you cannot make it completely safe again. The information can be traded, duplicated, passed around, and sold to any number of maliciously intentioned people.
Identity theft may occur days, weeks, months, or even years after thieves obtain your information. However, you can take measures now to reduce the risk of becoming a victim of identity theft.
Freeze Your Credit
By far, the best preventative measure you can take is to freeze your credit reports.
A credit freeze prevents anyone, including yourself, from using your personal information to apply for new credit or loans. Note that a freeze doesn’t protect thieves from accessing already existing accounts.
If you were one of those affected by the breach, we recommend placing a freeze on your credit reports at all three major agencies. It is straightforward to do. You will need to provide your Social Security number, birthdate, and the numerical portion of your street address.
Here are the phone numbers for each of the agencies’ automated systems and their websites:
o Phone number: (800) 349-9960
o Website: https://www.equifax.com/
o Phone number: (888) 397-3742
o Website: https://www.experian.com/
o Phone number: (888) 909-8872
o Website: https://www.transunion.com/
There is a small charge (varies by state) for each freeze you place or lift. Equifax is allowing anyone to place or lift a freeze for free until November 21, 2017.
After you place the freeze, each company will assign you a personal identification number (PIN). Be sure to keep the PIN safe, as it will be the only way to unfreeze your credit. Note that if you want to do anything that requires others to access your credit report—for example, apply for a loan or a job—you will have to unfreeze your credit at least temporarily.
Placing a freeze on your credit does not mean that your spouse or children are secure. Thieves can open accounts in their names, so consider a freeze or any of the below actions for all who were potentially impacted.
Set a Fraud Alert
If you do not want to freeze your credit, consider placing a fraud alert on your account. Fraud alerts require that creditors take additional steps to verify your identity before extending credit in your name.
Similar to a credit freeze, an alert will not prevent thieves from using your existing accounts. Plus, alerts last for only 90 days, unless you have already had your identity stolen and have filed an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In that case, you may place an extended alert, which lasts for seven years. Active-duty military personnel have an additional option to set a one-year alert.
An alert is free to place and can be done through any of the credit reporting companies. Once you place an alert with one, they will notify the other two companies on your behalf.
Purchase Credit Monitoring Services
At a base level, credit monitoring services track and notify you of changes in credit reports and accounts. There are a large number of companies offering these services, ranging from banks to independent companies to the credit reporting companies themselves.
It’s difficult to differentiate their products, but here are some things to look for when deciding which service to purchase:
1. How many credit reporting companies do they monitor? They may monitor one, two, or all three companies, and the more they do, the better. Each company sources its data through different channels. Some fraudulent information may appear through only one company, and you do not want to miss it.
2. How often can you get copies of your credit reports? Automated monitoring is a good first line of defense. However, it is both prudent and comforting to review your reports yourself as often as convenient to make sure the automated systems haven’t missed anything. These services provide copies of your credit reports as infrequently as annually up to several times per month.
3. Do they offer identity theft protection? Many services go beyond simply looking at your credit reports. They may monitor a vast number of sources for fraudulent activity. There are too many to list exhaustively, but some of the key things they can track are account takeovers and name changes, public records, dark web activity, and address changes.
4. What will they do if you become a victim? Some services merely alert you if fraudulent activity occurs or just offer to have a representative on the phone with you. This might be sufficient for small issues, but not for major instances of identity theft. Ideally, you want access to experts and legal counsel who can walk you through the process of restoring your identity. A few companies also offer coverage for personal expenses and reimbursement for stolen funds due to identity theft.
5. How much do they charge? Prices range from free up to $40 per month. Some services are free at first, but they will begin charging you after an introductory period. Totally free services are not comprehensive and make their money by advertising credit and loan information to you. If you decide to buy credit monitoring services, expect to pay at least $15 per month to make the services worthwhile.
6. Who do you want to cover? Some companies offer only individual plans, while others have pricing that includes the whole family. If you have multiple people that need coverage, individual plans can quickly get prohibitively expensive.
Two of the most comprehensive offerings are through Identity Guard® and LifeLock®. Looking at the services they offer will give you a good idea of what is available through any of these companies. From a quick Google search of reviews, some other companies to consider are Privacy Guard®, Credit Check®, and My Score®.
Check Credit Reports
If you are applying for credit, a loan, or a job, you want to be sure that all of the information on your reports is accurate. Regardless of whether you purchase credit monitoring services, it is a good idea to regularly check your credit reports.
Under federal law, each of the credit reporting companies is required to provide you with a free copy of your credit report every 12 months. The only authorized resource you can use to obtain your federally mandated free annual credit reports is at https://www.annualcreditreport.com.
You do not have to order all three reports at the same time. For example, ordering one every four months allows you to monitor your reports for free fairly regularly. You can also order additional reports through the credit reporting companies in between the 12-month period for a nominal fee.
Monitor Your Statements
While the above methods help prevent thieves from opening new accounts, none of them stops thieves from accessing your existing accounts. The best thing you can do is keep an eye on your credit reports and all bank, credit card, and investment account statements. Be sure to report any suspicious activity as soon as you discover it.
Be Safe with Your Data
Data breaches can easily come from you as well. There are far too many data safety tips to list here, but two of our favorites are to never access sensitive information on a public network and, whenever possible, use two-factor authentication on accounts with sensitive information.
For more tips on protecting your data online, visit the FTC’s website at https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/topics/online-security.
A common practice for identity thieves is to file a fraudulent tax return in your name to receive a refund. This is a risk even if there have been no signs that your identity has been compromised.
It is best to file your return as early as you feasibly can. The IRS won’t issue a refund check in your name if it already has a return on file.
Equifax may have been the largest-known data breach, but it was not the first, and it certainly won’t be the last. Your personal information is likely in the hands of multiple reputable online resources, but you never know where or when the next breach will occur.
The responsibility of monitoring and securing your identity is ultimately yours. Good tools are available to assist you in this, but they are not a replacement for you staying aware of your situation.
Be wary of who you give your personal information to, check your credit reports, and monitor your credit card and investment statements for suspicious activity.
For more information on the data breach or other consumer safety topics, the Federal Trade Commission is a good resource. Their website is at https://www.ftc.gov/.