A few weeks ago credit reporting agency, Equifax, announced that they had been hacked earlier this year. Equifax claims the personal data of roughly 143 million Americans and some 100,000 Canadians has been stolen. Hackers were able to access names, addresses, Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers and credit card numbers. Although this is not the largest data hack of a company, it is likely the most dangerous in terms of the type of data that was stolen which has more to do with identity fraud than credit fraud.
The Equifax hack is not something that should be taken lightly, and with roughly 143 million Americans affected, it is safe to assume your data may have been stolen. In the weeks, since Equifax’s announcement, we have had many clients asking how they can proactively protect themselves after this hack.
First, you need to be aware of who provides you with credit and monitor its usage. Next, understand that monitoring your credit and monitoring your identity are useful tools, so you can be alerted right away if someone tries to steal your identity. Keep in mind, there is no way to prevent all kinds of identity theft. Further, there is no way to protect you from someone filing a tax return on your behalf or using your information to perform insurance or medical fraud.
We encourage consumers to check their credit reports provided by the three major credit agencies: TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. The quickest way to check all three credit reports is at www.annualcreditreports.com (the only website recommended by the Federal Trade Commission). Please remember, you are checking your comprehensive credit report, not your FICO score. You can select one or all three and each agency must provide you with a free report every year, if requested. You can download the report, print it at home or review online.
What’s important is that you take the time to look at your credit reports closely. Check for any unused credit cards or lines of credit and have them closed. Additionally, you should be checking your credit card statements closely for any strange charges – especially on a monthly basis. Oftentimes, something small but recurring is when fraud goes unnoticed.
A second way to protect yourself have is to request a credit freeze. This will not affect your credit score; however, freezing your credit does require managing a number of moving parts. First, you have to make this request for each of the three credit reporting agencies by calling them and providing them with your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number and other personal information. Generally, a nominal fee of $5-$10 is involved to freeze your credit.
Once the request is approved, the credit reporting agency through which you requested the freeze will send you a confirmation letter with your unique PIN number. We recommend keeping this PIN in a safe place where you will remember it because it is required to lift a credit freeze. Lifting a credit freeze also involves a nominal fee and will take several days. Keep in mind, you have to do this for all three agencies with their respective PIN numbers.
While a credit freeze will make it more difficult for a thief to open new accounts in your name, it can be very burdensome to you as a consumer. When there is a freeze on your credit, you are unable to request credit reports, and you will be prevented from opening a new credit card or bank account. A credit freeze may also impede your ability to apply for employment, rent an apartment or buy insurance.
If freezing your credit seems like a daunting task, you have another option. You may enroll in a paid service that monitors your identity as well as your credit. Monitoring your identity will alert you if your personal data is found on illicit websites or appears on someone else’s public records. You can have a service scan for your email address, driver’s license number and medical insurance numbers too. One way identity thieves commit fraud is by blending personal information from a variety of sources and creating a new person – this is called Synthetic Fraud. Imagine, someone uses the Social Security number of deceased person with your name and someone else’s address.
When looking to pay for a credit monitoring service, be sure to check if they just monitor your credit usage or will include personal data scans. It’s possible you have free credit monitoring through your credit card company like Discover, as a benefit as an AAA member or some other associations. If you were part of the OPM hack and enrolled in My ID Care, you have that monitoring through 2025 which includes Identity Restoration support. If you were lucky enough not to be part of the OPM hack, you can pay a provider like My ID Care or Identity Guard $10-$20/month for the monitoring services and restoration services. If you have children, some of these providers allow you to include their Social Security numbers as well.
Lastly, there’s “Identity Theft Protection” which is offered through companies like LifeLock. While they cannot prevent your identity from being stolen, they claim they can help restore your credit and save you time contacting the various credit card companies and banks which you use. Some of the providers listed above, including LifeLock, offer this assistance. The Federal Trade Commission also has a great website (identitytheft.gov) for walking you through the steps to report and recover from identity theft on your own, and it is free to use.
We also suggest a few simple things you should do on a regular basis to protect yourself. Changing passwords on your main email account and financial accounts every six months is a proactive way to prevent hackers from gleaning sensitive data within your emails or your bank account information. You want to make sure your password is strong with a mix of lowercase and uppercase letters and special characters. A weak password on your accounts is a low bar for hackers.
A handful of financial institutions allow you to use a PIN in lieu of security questions and many are now offering dual authentication features such as texting a code to your phone that must be used within a short timeframe. If you’re a client of Charles Schwab & Co, you can add voice recognition to your profile. Just call the client service number 1-800-515-2157 and they’ll be happy to set it up for you.
Our goal with this article is not to scare you or make you feel insecure about your personal information. The reality is that this is the technological world in which we live. Cybersecurity is becoming more and more important and if we can equip you with the skills and information to combat cybercrime, we hope that you will be able to rest easy knowing you information is safe.