Take these steps to prevent criminal use of your identity!

equifax data breachYou have probably heard and read a lot about the recent security breach at Equifax, one of the three major U.S. credit agencies. To catch up, you can read these articles from CNN, NBC News, and The Washington Post.
 

Initially, I assumed the data breach would follow similar patterns to previous data breaches at sites like Target or Yahoo. If you kept an eye on credit card transactions and reported any fraud to the credit card company, you held little if any personal liability for the fraudulent activity.

 

This breach is different. It is a major screw-up by Equifax and will likely cause headaches for them and consumers for years to come.

 
Take these steps to see whether you are affected and to protect yourself in the aftermath.
 

Check With Equifax

At www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/potential-impact/, click on “Check Potential Impact,” then enter your last name and the final six digits of your Social Security number. Equifax will supply a message noting whether it believes your personal information was compromised. Even if your information wasn’t compromised, you’ll have the option of signing up for a free year of credit monitoring and identity theft protection services from Equifax’s TrustedID Premier.

 

Enroll in TrustedID Premier

(Note: Initially it seemed as if enrolling in this service would waive your right to participate in a class-action suit later, but Equifax has clarified this is not the case). Until November 21, 2017 you can visit www.equifaxsecurity2017.com to sign up. The service includes access to your Equifax credit report, monitoring for changes (such as newly opened credit card accounts or loans) on your credit reports from all three major credit agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), the ability to freeze and unfreeze your Equifax credit report (for more, see the next section), monitoring of your Social Security number on internet black-market sites, where crooks buy and sell stolen information, and insurance to reimburse out-of-pocket expenses if you become an ID theft victim.

 
TrustedID Premier is a legit service, and in particular, monitoring of your reports from all three credit bureaus is valuable in helping spot identity theft. But if you’re wary of relying on Equifax for protection, you have other options. Among free services, CreditKarma.com offers access to information from your TransUnion and Equifax credit reports, plus monitoring and alerts about changes in your TransUnion report.
 
Check whether you can get free assistance from your bank, credit card issuer, insurance company, or employer, too. Discover, for example, recently began offering its cardholders free monitoring for new accounts on their Experian credit reports. Paid services from companies such as LifeLock and Identity Guard offer broader suites of identity-theft protection services, including monitoring of your reports from all three credit agencies.
 

Consider a credit freeze or extended fraud alert

The strongest measure you can take to prevent identity theft is imposing a freeze on your credit files. It bars new creditors from accessing your credit report–and as a result, identity thieves will have a hard time opening new credit cards or loans in your name.

 
If criminals haven’t yet used your personal information fraudulently, you’ll probably have to pay to place the freeze (fees vary by state but often run about $5 to $10 per credit agency). If you later want to apply for a credit card or loan, you’ll have to lift the freeze during the shopping period, which may incur another fee.
 
As noted above, Equifax includes the ability to freeze your Equifax credit report for a year with TrustedID Premier. See Experian and TransUnion for how to freeze your credit with them.
 
As a less-cumbersome alternative, you can initiate a free 90-day fraud alert on your credit reports (when you place an alert with one credit agency, it will contact the other two companies). A fraud alert requires lenders to take extra steps to verify your identity when someone applies for credit in your name, but it doesn’t provide a full block on your reports. And unless you are already a victim of identity theft, you’ll have to renew the fraud alert every 90 days to maintain the protection. Your personal information may sit for years before a thief uses it, so you’ll need to be on guard for far longer than three months. Identity-theft victims are eligible for a free extended fraud alert, which lasts seven years. You also get two free credit reports within 12 months from each credit agency.
 

Annually check your credit report

If you haven’t obtained your free annual credit reports in the past 12 months, now is a good time to do it. At www.annualcreditreport.com, you can get a report from each of the three credit agencies. Review each one for accounts you don’t recognize, an incorrect address, or any other red flags. If you believe that you may be a victim of identity theft, you can take steps to resolve it.

 
I hope that a breach of this nature will lead to industry-wide changes in how credit is monitored and kept. The current system, relying heavily on Social Security numbers and voluntary reporting from the issuers of credit expose everyday Americans to fraud and incorrect credit decisions. Having been the victim of identify theft in college, I know all too well the headaches and time required to clean up the mess.