FUBAR! It’s a phrase that originates from our military and aptly sums up the recent data breach at Equifax. If you don’t know what the acronym means, I suggest doing a Google search, so that I can keep this article PG-13.
On to the matter at hand, Equifax has put 143 million people - 44% of the US population - in harms way due to their inability to protect your identity from data hackers. In other words, if you have a credit history of any kind, your personal information has likely been compromised. This includes your Social Security number, date of birth, address and possibly even your driver’s license number. What this means to you is that the criminals who possess that information can use it to open new lines of credit or file a phony tax refund. In severe cases, the criminal will make every attempt to impersonate you as a means to access your bank accounts. (For more, see: Was I Hacked? Find Out If the Equifax Breach Affects You.)
Based on my experience helping a customer through such an incident when I was a personal banker, I know the consequences of ID theft secondhand, and they are painful enough that anyone affected by the data breach should take what happened very seriously. In fact, I suggest everyone with a credit history verify whether or not his/her information was impacted by the Equifax data breach. To do so, you can use the Equifax data breach website. However, knowing if you were impacted is just the beginning in terms of protecting your exposed information.
How to Protect Personal Data
If you are one of the unlucky 44%, then you should consider the following steps outlined below to protect your valuable personal information:
Enroll in a credit monitoring service, either through Equifax’s free offering (free for one year only) or another paid service like LifeLock. LifeLock’s plans range from $10/month to $30/month. What’s attractive about LifeLock is their reimbursement feature. Before finalizing the Equifax offering (you should get a confirmation within a week), and if you are asked, be sure to opt out of the mandatory arbitration agreement. Doing so allows you to pursue legal action in the event your information was compromised because of Equifax. They have waived the clause for this specific matter according to this report, but just a word of caution in case.
- Equifax’s product, called TrustedID Premier, provides:
- $1 million in ID theft protection.
- Monitors your credit file with the three main bureaus - Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
- Copies of Equifax credit report.
- Credit report lock to limit third parties ability to access your credit report.
- Social Security number monitoring.
Monitor and double check your account statements. Note, the criminals usually start with smaller transactions across many accounts. Look for anything unfamiliar and if you see suspicious activity shut down the credit card immediately. (For more, see: Identity Theft Protection Services: Worth Having? )
Opt out of credit offers for five years or permanently. One of the many tricks by ID thieves is to intercept pre-screened credit card and insurance offers that were meant to go to you. Click this opt out link or call 888-567-8688 to remove your name from these types of offerings. Personally, I signed up to have my name permanently removed. However, some of you may want to go with the five year option because it is more easily completed online and thus takes effect immediately. Permanent removal requires one extra step in that you have to mail the physically signed form, which is generated after electronic submission.
Freeze your credit with all three major credit bureaus. A credit freeze is one of the best ways for consumers to protect themselves from ID theft. Doing so costs $10 each with TransUnion and Experian and is free with Equifax. I won’t sugar coat it, going through the process of implementing a freeze with all three bureaus is a hassle. On the other hand, it is way less burdensome than having to unwind a bunch of phony credit cards. You also need to be mindful that you are required to thaw your credit whenever applying for a new job, obtaining credit, buying a house, shopping for a car or switching your cell phone service. It’s best to wait to freeze your credit until after any pending credit approval is completed. One last tip is to make sure you save your PIN in a secure, easy to remember place. Your PIN is necessary for temporarily unfreezing your credit.
Place a fraud alert on your credit file with all three major credit bureaus. Alternatively, putting a fraud alert on your file is a decent backup plan if you intend to hold off from doing a credit freeze. A fraud alert requires a business to call and verify your identity before proceeding with a credit application. Typically, a fraud alert is only good for 90 days, but you can request an extension by faxing or mailing an extended fraud alert request form with each bureau. (For more from this author, see: Flood Insurance Lessons Learned From Hurricane Irma.)
How to Freeze Your Credit
- Online or by mail (sample letter).
- To unfreeze credit go online, send letter by mail, or call (800) 685-1111.
- Mailing address: Equifax Freeze, P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, GA, 30348.
- Call the following about delays receiving your PIN - (888) 298-0045.
- Online, by mail (sample letter) or call (888) 397-3742.
- To unfreeze credit go online, send letter by mail or call (888) 397-3742.
- Mailing address: Experian, P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX, 75013.
- Online, by mail (sample letter) or call (888) 909-8872.
- To unfreeze credit go online, send letter by mail or call (888) 909-8872.
- Mailing address: TransUnion LLC, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA, 19016.