Equifax Breach: How to Protect Your Data

By now it’s not news that cybersecurity concerns have taken center stage in the country. Equifax, one of the three leading credit reporting agencies in the U.S., has admitted that they were hacked around May through July and that personal information of more than 145 million Americans had been compromised.

Sadly, as alarming as this may sound, it’s not the first of its kind. As you may remember, Target and Home Depot had breaches, as well as many others that did not make headlines. Even the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was targeted. Their corporate filing system, EDGAR, was hacked and non-public corporation filings of publicly-traded companies were accessed, allowing for the potential for someone to benefit from private knowledge by violating insider trading laws and regulations. (For related reading, see: Was I Hacked? Find out If the Equifax Breach Affects You.)

It appears that no one is safe from cybercriminals and as consumers, we must learn how to protect ourselves from identity theft.

Cybersecurity Concerns the New Norm

In this age of digital domination, cybersecurity concerns are the new norm. The convenience of having many of our financial transactions online raises issues that need to be addressed. For starters, our online presence has increased. We post about our personal lives, jobs, kids and school, and all this information becomes public knowledge if we don’t set the necessary privacy settings. Our banking has also moved to the internet and we can now deposit and transfer money or pay bills with a few clicks.

While it is convenient to have access to our information online 24/7, it also causes concern for many. Cybersecurity has been a threat and will continue to be one. Simply put, we must become proactive in protecting ourselves and our loved ones by taking the necessary precautions.

First Steps

Equifax’s data breach has had an impact on how we view cybersecurity concerns and as a result of it, the agency has created a website where you can find out if you were affected. Their website will ask you for personal identifying information and, in return, it will notify you if your data may have been compromised. If you believe you have been a victim of identity theft, the first step would be to report it and file the necessary paperwork as soon as possible by visiting IdentityTheft.gov. From there, you will be able to file your report and obtain a personal recovery plan.

You can also access your credit report free of charge once a year from each credit reporting agency. If you haven’t checked your credit report recently, now would be a good time to do so. Review it carefully for accuracy and report any discrepancies as soon as possible by contacting the respective credit bureau. Sometimes their reported information may differ and it’s a good idea to check all three reports and compare them. If you don’t know what to look for, here is a quick guide from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that may help. (For more, see: Identity Theft Protection Services: Worth Having? )

Another step to protect your credit file is to place a fraud alert or a credit freeze. A fraud alert stays on your file for 90 days and you may renew it once it expires. To place one, contact one of the three credit reporting agencies and they will notify the other two for you.

A credit freeze is slightly different because it prevents access to your credit report. If you need to apply for any new credit, you will need to remove the freeze beforehand. Unlike a fraud alert, a credit freeze must be placed with each credit reporting agency individually and there may be fees associated with this service each time you freeze or unfreeze your credit.

Additional Steps

  • Consider identity theft protection services.
  • Change your passwords. Be sure to use secure and different passwords for each account.
  • Be aware of scammers that may call. Even if they can provide you with your name and Social Security number, don’t believe what they say.
  • Try to file your taxes early. Identity thieves will often try to file your tax return in order to obtain your refund.

Precautionary Steps 

While identity theft can be a daunting topic, we must take precautionary steps to protect our identity and that of our loved ones. Below are a few additional things you should be doing to help keep our information secure. (For more, see: Popular Scams Targeting Retirees.)

  • Monitor your financial accounts. Pay attention to your credit card and financial statements. Many times, small amounts that may otherwise go unnoticed start to appear as recurring charges. If you notice suspicious activity, contact your bank or credit card companies. Many offer the option of setting alerts.
  • Review and shred all your bills. Know when they are due and be sure to shred all documents containing personal and financial information. Your trash is an identity thief’s treasure.
  • Place a credit freeze on any minor’s credit. An alarming number of children’s identities has already been stolen. Children are easy targets for identity thieves because their credit reports are a clean slate and will often go undetected for a longer period. If you’re interested in learning more on how to place a credit freeze on a minor’s credit file, be sure to check out this guide for details.
  • Stay on top of the latest scams as they tend to follow the headlines. We have all been targeted at one point or another with a scam via email, social media or phone calls. Identity thieves are creative and when they combine that creativity with sophisticated technology, it can be difficult to differentiate between a scammer and a legitimate organization. Be sure to do your due diligence and verify your sources.
  • Change your passwords frequently and use secure ones whenever possible. Don’t use easy to guess words or names. Use at least a mixture of capital letters, lowercase letters and numbers.

While cybersecurity is an ever changing area of concern, by taking the time to familiarize ourselves with it we are lowering our risk of becoming a victim. If you would like a printed guide to identity theft, a great resource is the Federal Trade Commission's publication: Identity Theft: A Recovery Plan.