By now, you have probably heard about the enormous theft of names, Social Security numbers, and other sensitive information from Equifax. In all, hackers stole the information of more than 143 million consumers.
Equifax: Just the Latest in an Onslaught
The Equifax breach was huge, but it is hardly an isolated incident. By September 5 of this year, there had already been 975 data breaches in 2017, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.
It is imperative that Americans take steps to protect their personal and financial information. Do not rely on companies to do it for you.
Consider a Credit Freeze
One of the most effective ways to prevent fraudulent credit in your name is to set up a credit freeze.
With a credit freeze, you essentially lock down your credit information so that no lender can access it. You receive a personal identification number that you will have to securely store because you will need the PIN when you decide to lift the freeze.
Credit freezes can be cumbersome, and not just because of the PIN. First, you will have to create a freeze with each of the credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
Second, you will have to pay a fee with each of those agencies. The cost will vary by state, but you can expect to pay a relatively small amount, say $5 or $10. (Equifax, by the way, announced on September 11 that it would waive all security freeze fees for 30 days.)
If you want to permanently or temporarily lift the freeze so a lender can access your report (for example, you want to buy a home), then you will have to pay the fee again.
The footwork involved may deter some people from freezing their credit, but as I said, it is one of the most effective ways to prevent thieves from using your credit.
Set Up Fraud Alerts
If you do not want to lock down your credit, then consider establishing a fraud alert. A fraud alert requires a creditor to verify your identity, such as calling you, before accessing your credit report.
Fraud alerts are a lot easier to set up than credit freezes. Not only are they free, but all you have to do is contact one of the credit bureaus, and they will notify the other two.
Order Your Credit Report
You should regularly review your credit report for fraudulent activity. Check for new accounts that you did not open and for irregularities in your existing accounts. If you find fraud, contact the credit bureau and the creditor.
Also, visit the Federal Trade Commission website IdentityTheft.gov to get the steps to report and recover from identity theft.
You are allowed to order a free credit report from each of the credit reporting companies once a year. I recommend that you visit www.annualcreditreport.com every four months and order one of the reports that you have not yet looked at that year.
Monitor Your Accounts
Check your bank, credit, and other financial accounts regularly for fraudulent activity. Consider setting up alerts for large expenditures—or even for any expenditures on accounts that you do not use!
Also sign up for two-factor authentication, which text-messages or emails you a code that you have to use to log in to your account. Two-factor authentication makes it more of a challenge for thieves to get into your accounts. You can also use it with many email programs.
These steps provide a start to protecting your identity and financial information, but you should take other measures such as using secure passwords.
Vigilance like this can seem like too much effort, but I say it is worth the peace of mind knowing that you have done all that you can to keep your financial security out of criminals’ hands.