You have no doubt heard about the massive data breach at Equifax, a credit monitoring service. According to the company, the data of 143 million individuals were stolen, including names, addresses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and driver's license information. Equifax also said 209,000 credit card numbers were accessed as well as 182,000 dispute documents.
Like you, we were dismayed to hear this news - but not surprised. This is not the first major data breach and it won't be the last. You should assume that your personal data has already been stolen. We have ourselves.
Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to recover your data. However, you can find out if your personal information was compromised by visiting www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/potential-impact/.
If your personal information was accessed, we strongly recommend you review Equifax's offering of free identity theft protection and credit file monitoring. We personally accepted this offer.
Even if Equifax says your information was not compromised during the breach, take the usual steps to protect yourself from identity theft: Monitor your credit record regularly and be on the lookout for fraud. Make sure you also monitor the credit records of your spouse, your elderly parents and, even, your children.
In conjunction with credit monitoring (either via a monitoring service or on your own by periodically requesting a credit report), place a security freeze on your credit files.
Note: Typically, once a credit freeze is in place, you can't sign up for a credit monitoring service. The order in which you take these steps is important if you choose to do both.
The following are some frequently asked questions about security credit freezes:
What does a security freeze do?
A security freeze blocks potential creditors from seeing your credit file while it is in place. Therefore, an identity thief who has your information has no way of gaining new lines of credit because a creditor won't issue one without being able to see your current credit score and file.
How do I put a security freeze in place?
You will need to notify four credit bureaus - Equifax, Experian, TransUnion and Innovis. This notification can typically be done online. Once completed, each bureau will provide you with a PIN to be used to unfreeze or "thaw" your credit file when you need to apply for new lines of credit.
Many states allow you to do this at no charge, but some states charge a nominal fee - typically up to $15 - for each credit freeze per bureau.
What is the advantage of a security freeze over a fraud alert?
A fraud alert is good for only 90 days, but can be renewed. Alternatively, you can get an extended fraud alert, which lasts for seven years.
When you have a fraud alert in place, lenders and service providers are expected to contact you for approval before issuing any new line of credit. A key point regarding fraud alerts is that lenders and service providers are supposed to receive your permission before granting new lines of credit in your name, but they are not legally required to do so.
The Equifax data breach is an unfortunate reminder of how valuable your data and personal information is, and an opportunity to revisit what you can do to protect yourself:
* Do not send personal, confidential information, including your financial account numbers, Social Security number or passwords, through email. Regardless, always use an email encryption service.
* Review your credit card and bank statements each month for any suspicious transactions or activity.
* Most identity theft occurs via phishing emails in which the end user is tricked into clicking on links or providing information that allows fraudsters to gain access to accounts or personal information.
* Use string passwords and don't default to the same password multiple times. If you have a lot of passwords, this can be difficult. Consider using password management software.
For more general information about how to protect against fraud, we recommend visiting the Federal Trade Commission's consumer information website.
Like what you read here? Sign up for our newsletters to keep learning more.