The chances of you being affected by the recent Equifax security breach are very high. The breach exposed as many as 143 million credit records for customers in multiple countries. This leaves millions of us at risk of identity fraud and most of us wondering how to prevent it.
For most folks, this is not what they want to hear but the danger isn’t over yet. Those responsible for stealing Social Security numbers and other data from Equifax are attempting to sell this data to identity thieves. For the uninitiated, this is low value data for criminals who tend to focus on “smash & grab” data like credit cards, however, the data can be used and cause damage to your credit history and generally make life difficult.
If ever there was a reminder that you — the consumer — are ultimately responsible for protecting your financial future, this is it.
Here’s what you need to know and what you should do in response to this unprecedented breach.
What is Equifax doing about this breach?
Equifax is offering one free year of their credit monitoring service. In addition, it has put up a Web site — www.equifaxsecurity2017.com — that tried to let people determine whether they were affected.
Equifax security site tells me I was not affected by the breach. Am I safe?
As reported in multiple news outlets and security research firms, the site is broken and is hopelessly designed, often returning differing results for the same data submitted at different times.
In the absence of more reliable information from Equifax, it is safer to assume you ARE compromised.
Does Equifax monitoring service require me to waive my rights to sue in connection with this breach?
Not according to Equifax. The company issued a statement over the weekend saying that nothing in that agreement applies to this cybersecurity incident.
However, the legal statement did change after pressure mounted from multiple state’s attorney generals that the language did seem to force consumers into forfeiting participation in any future class-action law suit.
Should I take advantage of the credit monitoring offer?
It can’t hurt, but, sign up requires a credit card and it’s only free for 12 months – this service appears packaged for Equifax as a way to offset cost of future legal action with a profit motive vs. protecting your credit. As always: buyer beware!
Suggestion: CreditKarma.com is free and has free credit monitoring.
Will a credit monitoring service prevent fraud?
The credit bureaus sure want you to believe that they are preventing fraud, however, it’s not true in practice. These services do not prevent thieves from using your identity to open new lines of credit, and from damaging your good name for years to come in the process. The most you can hope for is that credit monitoring services will alert you soon after an ID thief does steal your identity.
What are these credit monitoring services good for?
Credit monitoring services are principally useful in helping consumers recover from identity theft. Doing so often requires dozens of hours writing and mailing letters, and spending time on the phone contacting creditors and credit bureaus to straighten out the mess. In cases where identity theft leads to prosecution for crimes committed in your name by an ID thief, you may incur legal costs as well. Most of these services offer to reimburse you up to a certain amount for out-of-pocket expenses related to those efforts. But a better solution is to prevent thieves from stealing your identity in the first place.
What’s the best way to prevent thieves from stealing my identity?
File a security freeze — also known as a credit freeze — with the four major credit bureaus.
What is a security freeze?
A security freeze essentially blocks any potential creditors from being able to view or “pull” your credit file, unless you affirmatively unfreeze or thaw your file beforehand. With a freeze in place on your credit file, ID thieves can apply for credit in your name all they want, but they will not succeed in getting new lines of credit in your name because few if any creditors will extend that credit without first being able to gauge how risky it is to loan to you (i.e., view your credit file). And because each credit inquiry caused by a creditor has the potential to lower your credit score, the freeze also helps protect your score, which is what most lenders use to decide whether to grant you credit when you truly do want it and apply for it.
What’s involved in freezing my credit file?
Freezing your credit involves notifying each of the major credit bureaus that you wish to place a freeze on your credit file. This can usually be done online, but in a few cases you may need to contact one or more credit bureaus by phone or in writing. Once you complete the application process, each bureau will provide a unique personal identification number (PIN) that you can use to unfreeze or “thaw” your credit file in the event that you need to apply for new lines of credit sometime in the future. Depending on your state of residence and your circumstances, you may also have to pay a small fee to place a freeze at each bureau. There are four consumer credit bureaus, including Equifax, Experian, Innovis and Trans Union. It’s a good idea to keep your unfreeze PIN(s) in a folder in a safe place (perhaps along with your latest credit report), so that when and if you need to undo the freeze, the process is simple.
How much is the fee, and how can I know whether I have to pay it?
The fee ranges from $0 to $15 per bureau, meaning that it can cost upwards of $60 to place a freeze at all four credit bureaus (recommended). However, in most states, consumers can freeze their credit file for free at each of the major credit bureaus if they also supply a copy of a police report and in some cases an affidavit stating that the filer believes he/she is or is likely to be the victim of identity theft. In many states, that police report can be filed and obtained online. The fee covers a freeze as long as the consumer keeps it in place. Consumers Union has a useful breakdown of state-by-state fees.
But what if I need to apply for a loan, or I want to take advantage of a new credit card offer?
You thaw the freeze temporarily (in most cases the default is for 24 hours).
What’s involved in thawing my credit file?
The easiest way to unfreeze your file for the purposes of gaining new credit is to spend a few minutes the phone with the company from which you hope to gain the line of credit (or research the matter online) to see which credit bureau they rely upon for credit checks. It will most likely be one of the major bureaus. Once you know which bureau the creditor uses, contact that bureau either via phone or online and supply the PIN they gave you when you froze your credit file with them. The thawing process should not take more than 24 hours, but hiccups in the thawing process sometimes make things take longer. It’s best not to wait until the last minute to thaw your file.
Does a freeze prevent credit bureaus from selling data about me as a consumer to marketers?
A freeze on your file does nothing to prevent the bureaus from collecting information about you as a consumer — including your spending habits and preferences — and packaging, splicing and reselling that information to marketers.
Can I still use my credit or debit cards after I file a freeze?
Yes. A freeze does nothing to prevent you from using existing lines of credit you may have.
If you have any further questions about how to protect yourself during this security event, please contact us directly.
I have more questions…
Contact us if you have any more questions or need further recommendations on how to protect yourself from this historical security breach.