By now, you’ve heard about the Equifax cybersecurity breach: One of the three largest consumer credit-reporting agencies in America revealed last week that hackers had accessed data that could compromise the private information of 143 million American consumers. That’s nearly half the entire U.S. population.
So chances are good that your information has been compromised — even if you’ve never dealt directly with Equifax. Don’t panic, though. First, take a deep breath, and then follow these simple steps.
ASSUME YOUR INFORMATION IS AT RISK
Equifax created a site to help consumers figure out if they had been affected, but this raised additional security concerns because in order to check, you had to give parts of your Social Security number over to a company that had just been hacked. Given the size of the breach, and the many other data breaches prior to this one, it’s probably a good idea just to assume your information has been compromised and take measures to protect yourself.
SIGN UP FOR FRAUD ALERTS
You can request that a fraud alert be placed with the major credit-reporting bureaus — Equifax (800-525-6285), TransUnion (800-680-7289) and Experian (888-397-3742). Fraud alerts mean that your identity must be verified before anyone can issue credit. This will make it harder for someone to open an account in your name.
You should only need to contact one credit-reporting bureau to do this, as each is required to notify the other two of any fraud alert request. You will need to renew the fraud alert every 90 days.
There is a fourth credit-reporting company, Innovis, that does not share its fraud alert requests, so contact them directly.
FREEZE YOUR CREDIT
Freezing your credit means that lenders, credit card companies, landlords and others will be unable to obtain your credit report, which also makes it difficult for identity thieves to open accounts in your name. It also means that opening accounts will be more difficult for you, too. But it can go a long way to protect you if someone gets your information, and there are ways to lift the freeze.
You’ll need to contact each of the credit-reporting bureaus separately and you may have to pay a fee. Each bureau has a website or phone number you can use: Equifax (1-800-349-9960), TransUnion (1-888-909-8872), Experian (1-888-397-3742) and Innovis (1-800-540-2505). If you request a freeze, be sure to store the PIN to unfreeze your accounts in a safe place.
CHECK YOUR CREDIT REPORT AND CONSIDER MONITORING IT
Visit AnnualCreditReport.com to learn how to request a free copy of your credit report from each of the major bureaus. Scour your report for accounts you didn’t open or don’t recognize. If you find anything suspicious, report it immediately and take further steps to lock down your credit.
If you don’t want to take the steps above, it may also be a good idea to sign up for a credit-monitoring service, which will notify you anytime there is activity (after the fact) involving your information. Equifax is offering this for free for a year, although they initially were criticized for fine print that stated you would be giving up your rights to sue if you signed up (they have since clarified that enrolling does not prohibit consumers from taking legal action). There are lots of other credit-monitoring services available as well.
SIGN UP FOR ONLINE ACCOUNTS AND OPT INTO EXTRA LAYERS OF SECURITY
If you haven’t signed up for online accounts with your financial institutions, someone with your information might do so and you might not know until you see your next statement. So open online accounts with your financial institutions so that they have a record of your online account and password.
When you sign up, it’s a good idea to opt into two-factor authentication whenever possible; this makes it harder for thieves to get into your accounts. And while we know it’s annoying, use strong passwords — make them random with special characters and numbers, or use long phrases only you would remember.
Lastly, monitor your financial accounts weekly, if not daily, to ensure all listed transactions are legitimate. Notify your financial institution immediately of any unauthorized transactions or concerns.