In light of the alarming data breach at Equifax, identity theft is an issue on the minds of many Americans these days. Although data breaches of consumer information have become almost common in recent years, the Equifax breach is different from those at Yahoo, Target, and even Anthem. That is because hackers gained access to all four primary pieces of consumers’ information – names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, and addresses – causing some experts to refer to this as “the nightmare scenario.” Personal information of roughly 143 million Americans (nearly half the people in the country, including me) was compromised, potentially leaving them at risk of identity theft for the rest of their lives (changing your Social Security number is nearly impossible, unless you plan on entering a witness protection program, in which case you’ve probably got bigger problems.)
Here is what you should do:
To find out if your information was exposed, go to http://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com.
Click on the “Potential Impact” tab, enter your last name, and last six digits of your Social Security number. (Make sure you are on a secure computer and an encrypted network connection when you do this.)
Check credit card and bank activity at least weekly. The earlier you detect a problem, the better chance you will have to do something about it.
If you do not need access to new credit anytime soon, consider placing a credit freeze on your files. This is the most effective action most people can take. Most states allow you to “freeze” your credit report. Once you freeze your report, no one – creditors, insurers, and even potential employers – will be allowed access to your credit report unless you “thaw” it for them. To freeze your credit report, you must contact all three major credit-reporting agencies. The cost of freezing (and unfreezing) a credit report can be as much as $20 in some states. Note that individuals who freeze their credit reports must, therefore, unfreeze their reports before they can apply for credit themselves, which can be done temporarily or permanently.
If you are worried about minor children becoming victims of identity theft even before reaching adulthood, you may be able to request a credit freeze for a minor. Not all states allow this, but the process is similar to freezing your own credit, with a few additional steps.
Check your credit report. It is important to review your credit report periodically. Check to make sure all the information contained in it is correct, and there is no fraudulent activity. You may obtain your credit report free once per year from each of the three national credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. To do this, visit www.annualcreditreport.com. It is best to space these requests out over the course of the year and rotate agencies (i.e., request a free report from each agency every four months), increasing odds of catching fraudulent activity timely.
If you need to correct any information or dispute any entries, contact the three agencies for that as well.
Take advantage of the one year of free credit monitoring from Equifax. Again, go to http://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com.
The site will give you a date when you can come back to enroll. Write down the date, come back to the site, and click “Enroll” on that date. You have until November 21, 2017 to enroll.
Candidly, this falls far short of what most consumers will need to adequately protect themselves from what will likely be a permanent risk. It is free, so you may as well take advantage, especially if you do not plan to freeze your credit reports. Keep in mind however that monitoring only spots problems after they have already occurred and disrupted a person’s financial life, while the credit freeze is protective at the onset.
Monitor medical bills and insurance information to make sure someone is not getting care by impersonating you.
File your taxes early if you can, before a scammer beats you to it using your information.
Unfortunately, we must all remain diligent in monitoring our sensitive information, as the Equifax Breach is certainly not the last time that hackers will gain access to a large amount of consumer data. Please reach out to us if you want to talk about this further!
Marcus Miller, CFP®, CPA
Indiana Credit Freeze: https://www.in.gov/attorneygeneral/2411.htm
Illinois Credit Freeze: http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/consumers/security_freeze.pdf
Interactive Map for all 50 states’ credit freeze laws & information on a credit freeze for a minor: http://www.noidentitytheft.com/credit-freeze-guide-50-states/#inScroll