As you have most likely heard, late last week, Equifax – one of the ‘Big Three’ credit bureaus in the United States – admitted that its own lax security practices had allowed hackers to steal the personal identities of 143 million U.S. citizens. Data potentially accessed by hackers from mid-May to July include names, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and personal documents.
How bad is this breach? Look to your left or right. See that person setting next to you? It’s likely that one of the two of you have had your id stolen in this hack. To compound the issue, Equifax didn’t notify the public for more than a month after it detected the breach. In response, Equifax is offering a year of free credit monitoring and identity theft insurance that you can sign up for at equifaxsecurity2017.com.
To protect yourself, one option is to set up a fraud alert, which is free, by calling one of the three credit bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion or Experian. By law, the bureau you contact must share that alert with the other two bureaus, so you just need to contact one, which is helpful if you’re too angry to want to contact Equifax. Setting up a fraud alert puts into place a requirement that any lender that pulls credit reports will have to call you and verbally verify that it's you who made the application.
Here are the phone numbers for the credit bureaus:
o Equifax — 1-800-349-9960
o Experian — 1-888-397-3742
o TransUnion — 1-888-909-8872
If you want to be even more proactive, you can add a security freeze to your credit. This takes your credit report out of circulation. As a result, no lender will be able to get access to your credit report. Experts say this is the single most effective action potential victims can take. However, it can be a nuisance, because you'll have to unfreeze it every time a credit issuer needs to run a credit check on you. But a credit freeze should prevent most forms of identity theft.
Freezing your credit will not impact your credit score. But it will cost you $5-$10 to freeze it and you’ll have to pay again to un-freeze it. If you apply for new credit in the future, for example, you’ll have to temporarily lift the freeze and pay to do so. What you cannot do is demand that Equifax no longer generate your credit report. All three bureaus will continue compiling your credit reports, no matter what you do.
Regular credit monitoring is painful but important. And online resources, including the Identity Theft Resource Center, provide excellent tools to discover how to defend yourself against identity theft. The ITRC is funded by credit protection companies, such as Experian and LifeLock, but also by the U.S. Justice Department. As always, it would be wise to keep an eye on your bank accounts, credit card balances and retirement accounts. These can all be targets of fraud. Also, keep your passwords confidential and complex.