An unfortunate characteristic of our new world of connectivity is that it can feel like hackers are out to get you. Although data breaches are not new, and they happened even before the digitization of information, the recent Equifax breach highlights the vulnerability we all face as more and more of our personal data is online.
In light of the Equifax security breach, which affected approximately 145.5 million consumers (nearly half of the U.S. population), here are five things you can do to help protect yourself from identity theft and make it a little harder for the bad guys to get their hands on your data:
- Get a free credit report every year from each of the three major reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and Transunion). You can stagger them to get one report every four months. Review the reports for accuracy to make sure there are no mistakes or fraudulent lines of credit.
- Setup a fraud alert. A fraud alert on your credit report will notify lenders and creditors to take an extra step of identity verification before opening a credit line in your name. Fraud alerts are free. Once you contact one of the three major agencies, they are required to contact the other two. Fraud alerts last for 90 days (one year if you are in the military on active duty), but can be extended up to seven years if you are a victim of identity theft.
- Consider freezing your credit. If you freeze your credit, no one, including you, can access your credit report to open new lines. You will get a PIN that you have to use each time you want to unfreeze and freeze your credit. In Utah there is a $10 fee for each credit reporting agency to add a freeze and an additional $10 fee each time you want an agency to “thaw” a freeze. There are no fees for victims of identity theft. (For related reading, see: Equifax Tries to Save Face With Free Credit Freeze.)
- Sign up for credit monitoring services that notify you if a new account or credit inquiry shows up on your report. Some credit monitoring services are free and others can cost up to $50 per month depending on the services offered. Equifax is offering one year of free credit monitoring to all Americans.
- General good practices are to shred documents that contain personal information, make sure your devices are password protected, use strong passwords and PINs, and don’t be an open book online. Set your social media preferences appropriately and avoid volunteering information about yourself to people you don’t personally know.
The Equifax hack will likely have repercussions for years to come. While we fully expect credit bureaus and other entities with sensitive information to aggressively pursue improvements in data security, we also recognize that hackers never sleep and will continue to create new tools and techniques to breach security systems. Unfortunately this means we will all need to be more vigilant in monitoring how our personal information is being used and disseminated.
(For related reading, see: Was I Hacked? Find out if the Equifax Breach Affects You.)