by Peggy Munro
You may be aware that Equifax, one of the three major credit monitoring companies, publicly announced on September 7 that there was a cybersecurity breach of their data effecting approximately 143 million U.S. consumers dating back to May (2017). This breach was discovered by them late in July.
Among the information accessed by unauthorized parties are names, addresses, Social Security numbers, dates of births, and even drivers’ license numbers. In other words, the thieves have everything they could possibly need to steal your identity and open credit accounts in your name.
Equifax’s response to this breach has been underwhelming. They are offering (for a limited time only) free credit monitoring of their site. This is completely and totally inadequate.
We have been living in a fools’ paradise for a very long time, assuming that companies that have our information have an obligation to safeguard that information. Based on this latest cyber breach, this is clearly not true.
Equifax does have a website (www.equifaxsecurity2017.com) where you can check to see if your Social Security number is one that has been breached. Chances are good that it has. If they are correct in their estimate of the number of people whose information is out there, that’s over 42% of the U.S. population.
While this is the largest data breach to date, there have been so many others over the past several years. You should therefore assume that your information is in the hands of people who should not have it. The horse is out of that particular barn.
There is, however, a practical course of action that you can follow going forward. First, put a security freeze on access into your information with the three major credit monitoring companies.
Access the Equifax freeze at https://www.freeze.equifax.com or 1-800-349-9960;
Transunion at https://freeze.transunion.com or 1-888-909-8872; and
Experian at https://www.experian.com/ncaconline/freeze or 1-888-397-3742.
A security freeze for a fourth credit reporting agency, Innovis, can be placed at https://www.innovis.com/securityFreeze/index.
Please be patient — many of these websites have crashed due to the high volume of requests they are receiving. It took me two days to get all the freezes on my accounts.
By placing a security freeze with these four companies, you will be able to prevent anyone else for accessing your credit reports. You will not be able to apply for any credit while the freeze is on, so if you are applying for a mortgage, buying a car, or trying to open a credit account of any sort, you will have to take the freeze off your accounts while in process; however, the freeze can, and should, be reapplied as soon as your financing is complete.
Equifax’s credit freeze is free at the moment; Experian and Transunion may charge you if you haven’t experienced identity theft at this time. The fee is set by your state. It’s definitely worth it to pay the fee. There is some discussion in congress about reducing or even eliminating the fees altogether in light of this current security breach.
In addition to placing security freezes with every credit monitoring agency, you should also pull all of your credit reports from Equifax, Experian and Transunion through www.annualcreditreport.com to make sure there is no unauthorized activity in your financial life. You are entitled to one free report from each of these three credit reporting agencies per year. While best practice in the past has been to ask for one credit report every four months (in order to frequently check but not incur any financial cost), at this time, it is probably wise for you to check all three right now.
You may also want to sign up with a credit monitoring service, which will cost you approximately $20/month to keep an eye on activity within your credit life. This is only a monitoring service, though, and will not prevent unauthorized access to your information; it will just tell you when your information has been accessed.
If you have minor children, do not assume that their information is safe. Please place security freezes on all of their accounts as well.
Finally, please pass this along to everyone you know. This is a major problem, and unfortunately, it will be up to each of us, individually, to secure our information and prevent others from illegally accessing it. If you feel so inclined, you should also contact your state and local representatives to force common-sense regulations on these companies which hold so much of our financial lives in their hands, with seeming little regard for its safety.