How To Protect Yourself From The Equifax Hack

Photo credit: Markus Spiske.

By now you have heard about the Equifax security breach. Perhaps you are wondering if your social security number, birthdate, driver’s license and other personal data have been stolen. You may have even gone to the Equifax website to see if your information has been affected. If not, you can do so by clicking here.

Or I can save you the trouble: Just assume your personal info has been affected by this breach. With the personal data of 143 million Americans at risk, it’s pretty safe to assume that you, your spouse or your kids have been affected by this.

The real question isn’t “has your personal information has been hacked?”. It’s “what are you going to do about it?”.

Below are three steps you can take to help protect yourself from the Equifax hack and others like it. 

First, consider placing a credit freeze at the three major credit bureaus. The three major credit bureaus include Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

One of the risks in a data breach such as with Equifax is that someone will open credit cards, bank loans or worse in your name. A security or credit freeze on your account prevents this from happening.

Placing a freeze on your credit (aka a credit or security freeze) may be a bit of a headache, but it’s the strongest way to prevent others from opening a credit account in your name.

The downside is that such freezes may come with a small fee and can be difficult to unfreeze in the future. Some day when you have a real need for others to access your credit report – perhaps you want to refinance your home, get a new job or buy a car – you will need to “unfreeze” your credit temporarily before doing so. If you lose your pin number or forget your identifying credentials, granting access to your credit report can be difficult.

Credit monitoring services like LifeLock and others may help monitor your credit activity. However, many experts consider these services to be an inadequate way to protect your self from identity theft. They typically charge a fee for credit reports that you are entitled to receive for free, and only notify you when your unfrozen credit file has already been accessed. Often this information is too little and too late.

Experts say the most complete way to protect yourself is with a credit freeze. To make this happen you will need to place a credit or security freeze at each of the credit bureaus listed above.

Second, initiate a fraud alert. Although a credit freeze may be the most effective way to protect yourself, it may not always be practical especially if you are looking for a job (some employers run credit checks) or need credit for a large purchase in the near future.

A fraud alert notifies lenders that you may have been a victim of fraud without actually placing a freeze on your credit. It stays in effect for 90 days. This extra step helps protect you by requiring lenders to verify that you are the real you before granting credit in your name.

Fraud alerts typically expire after 90 days but can be renewed upon expiration. In addition, fraud alerts may be granted for longer periods of time if you have been the victim of fraud. In some cases, a policy report or victim statement may be required, but this is not the case with 90-day alerts.

A fraud alert only needs to be set up with one of the three major credit bureaus. When you set up a fraud alert with Equifax or any of the others, the other two will be notified automatically.

For some people a fraud alert may be a more flexible alternative to an all out freeze on your credit.

For a detailed description of the differences between a credit freeze and a fraud alert, click here.

Third, request a copy of your credit report from each of the credit bureaus. It’s a good practice to review what credit has already been issued in your name and to make sure the information reported by the credit bureaus is accurate. Doing so allows you to review your credit accounts and identify errors or fraudulent activity.

The law allows consumers to receive one free credit report per year from each of the major credit bureaus. Requesting a fraud alert also qualifies you to receive a free credit report. Even if you have already received your free reports earlier in the year, requesting a current report is recommended considering recent current events.

A list of common credit report errors can be found on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website.

Only one website is authorized by the government to issue your free credit reports. Request your free credit reports at Avoid imposter sites that purport to offer free services. These sites often offer an initial trial that is free, but then convert to a subscription fee to receive information that you are legally entitled to receive for free already.

Equifax is offering free credit monitoring for a year. While this won’t prevent fraudulent activity from happening, it may help you identify it when it does. Since it’s free, take advantage of it, but don’t assume that this is all you need to do to protect yourself. In fact, you may need to monitor your credit reports indefinitely since your stolen information may be available to would-be thieves for years to come.

Prevent Identity Theft.

This article only touches on the initial steps consumers should take to help protect themselves from security breaches like we have experienced at companies like Equifax, Target, Home Depot and so many others. At a minimum consumers should place a fraud alert and monitor their credit reports on a regular basis. If you want to add an extra layer of protection and are comfortable with the potential headaches, consider placing a credit freeze at each of the three major credit bureaus.

Unfortunately, in today’s world preventing identity theft means taking additional steps to protect your information from falling into the wrong hands. In addition to the ideas outlined above, this includes creating more robust passwords, safeguarding your email accounts, signing up for two-step authentication whenever possible, avoiding public wi-fi and taking other precautions to protect the personal information of you and your family.

We will never be completely free from the risk of losing our personal information to people who would harm us. Adding insult to injury, some of these steps may be inconvenient and come with additional fees. However, being diligent and taking reasonable precautions is worth the effort in the long run and will go a long way towards helping protect your personal information.