In recent weeks, many of us have been unnerved by the news of the massive data breach affecting the credit rating agency Equifax. While the situation is indeed serious, there are a number of steps that you can take to protect yourself against potential identity theft and other harmful effects of the breach.
First, a bit of elaboration on exactly what happened. Equifax has stated that, from mid-May through July of this year, hackers were able to breach their servers and access the personal information of approximately 143 million Americans; in other words, roughly 45% of all Americans have potentially had their personal information exposed.
The hackers gained access to items such as names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and driver’s license numbers. They also were reportedly able to gain credit card numbers for around 209,000 persons, and dispute documents containing personal identifying information for around 182,000 people. Please note that these figures only represent victims in the United States; the United Kingdom and Canada also were targeted by the hackers.
It’s safe to say that all of us are at least a little worried about the situation. Fortunately, there are a number of actions that we all can take to safeguard ourselves from potential damage.
One primary step that you can take is to visit www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, a website set up by Equifax itself. You can click on the “Potential Impact” tab, input your last name and the last six digits of your SSN, and learn if your information was exposed in the breach. Please note that it would be wise to enter this information on a secure computer with an encrypted network connection.
You may also use the Equifax site to enroll for a year of free credit monitoring and other services. You will be provided with a date that you may enroll for this service on the site.
Protecting Yourself Beyond Equifax
Monitor Your Credit
First, make a habit of regularly checking your credit reports at www.annualcreditreport.com, which can be done for free. After opening the site, click one of the presented links to request your credit report. You will be asked to provide some personal information (name, birthdate, SSN, current address), and you will also be asked which credit reporting agencies you wish to download reports from (the three offered are Equifax, Transunion, and Experian).
You are eligible to receive a free report from each credit bureau every 12-month. By pulling one report from a different agency every 4 months, you can keep close tabs on your information without paying any fees. Regularly monitoring your credit will quickly identify any credit inaccuracies and limit the potential damage done by cybercriminals.
The website will have you provide answers to several security questions connected directly to your open or past accounts on record. After you have provided these, you will be presented with the full report. Keep in mind, they do not disclose your actual credit score.
Implement a Credit Freeze
Another tactic that you may wish to consider is placing a credit freeze. Doing this will make it harder for someone to open a new account in your name. Performing this action will not affect your credit score in any way. It also won’t affect your ability to open new accounts; you would simply need to lift the freeze temporarily, for a specific period of time or for a specific party. Many of our clients are in a position in life where they may never need another credit inquire. If this is the case with you, it makes even more sense to implement the freeze.
You will be given a PIN number from each agency after you request the freeze. You will be required to provide this PIN in the future when you unfreeze it. Keep this PIN in a safe place. The process will be significantly more difficult without it. Common times a retiree may need a credit report include buying a car or moving into a retirement community.
To freeze your credit, you can do so at each of the credit reporting agencies websites or phone numbers listed below: (Keep in mind, it needs to be done at each agency.)
- Equifax: 1-800-349-9960
- Experian: 1-888-397-3742
- TransUnion: 1-888-909-8872
- Innovis (less popular): 1-800-540-2505
File Your Taxes Early
A surprising use of your security data is filing your taxes with the IRS. With many taxpayers receiving potentially large refunds, criminals can file your tax and receive the refund in many easy to access ways. Once you receive all your tax documents for 2017, you should get your taxes done as soon as possible to eliminate this potential risk.
Update Passwords and Utilize Multi-Factor Authentication
You’ve heard it many times before. You should use a unique password for every site. Along with that, you should change them regularly. If you haven’t already done so, using an online password manager like LastPass or 1Password will make the process manageable. Finally, enable 2-step or multi-factor authentication on existing accounts. This extra layer of security requires a user to have more than just a username and password. After entering the standard information, the site will send a code to your email or phone for verification.
Cybercrime, including identity theft and online fraud, will only become more common in the future. A few wise decisions now can save you from some much larger headaches in the future. 50 years ago you may not have locked your front door or car at night. Our habits need to evolve in order to protect ourselves from bad people. Security will also improve, but you should make these changes today to lead a more secure “online” life.