Credit agency Equifax announced that it suffered a data breach affecting 143 million U.S. consumers. The attack on the company represents one of the largest risks to personally sensitive information in recent years, and is the third major cybersecurity threat for the agency since 2015.
Equifax, based in Atlanta, is a particularly tempting target for hackers. If identity thieves wanted to hit one place to grab all the data needed to do the most damage, they would go straight to one of the three major credit reporting agencies.
“This is about as bad as it gets,” said Pamela Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit research group. “If you have a credit report, chances are you may be in this breach. The chances are much better than 50 percent.”
Criminals gained access to certain files in the company’s system from mid-May to July by exploiting a weak point in website software, according to an investigation by Equifax and security consultants. The company said that it discovered the intrusion on July 29 and has since found no evidence of unauthorized activity on its main consumer or commercial credit reporting databases.
The hack exposed names, Social Security numbers, addresses, birth dates, and driver’s license numbers—all critical pieces of information used by identity thieves to impersonate people and conduct fraud. Credit card numbers for 209,000 consumers were stolen, while documents with personal information used in disputes for 182,000 people were also taken.
This is probably the most consequential data breach in history, considering that nearly all U.S. adults have their credit histories on file with Equifax and the other two credit bureaus, Experian and Transunion.
While it’s true that for some time that the public’s personal information has been available for sale in the black market, no data breach as comprehensive as this one has ever occurred.
That’s why it’s critical that you take significant steps to protect yourself—steps that exceed the weak response Equifax is recommending now.
Here’s what you need to do immediately to safeguard your information.
Freeze your credit
If you have not done so already, it is imperative that you freeze your credit immediately at each of the three credit bureaus.
A security freeze, also called a credit freeze, locks your credit file at each bureau with a special PIN that only you know. That PIN must be used in order for anyone to access your credit file, or add new credit in your name.
(Note: As of now, Equifax does not believe that security PINs were accessed by hackers. If you had a security freeze in place at Equifax before the hack your PIN should still be protected. But that could change.)
Credit bureaus rarely emphasize freezing your credit file because it’s not in their best interest, or their clients—banks and other companies that grant credit. Instead, they recommend “credit monitoring,” a largely useless and ineffective service that charges you money to tell you when your open, or unfrozen, credit file has been accessed.
In essence, they tell you that you may have a credit breach problem AFTER the fact, which isn’t protection against identity theft. The same is true for LifeLock, a company that has been repeatedly fined by the government for unfair and deceptive trade practices. We don’t recommend anyone use LifeLock.
A security freeze gives you complete control of your credit file. Unlike credit monitoring or fraud alerts, a security freeze stops an identity theft from happening rather than alerting you to potential fraud after it has happened.
How to do it
To set up a security freeze you must contact all three of the credit bureaus individually. This process can be done online or over the phone. You will be asked some questions to confirm your identity but it only takes a few minutes.
We recommend beginning with Experian and Transunion as Equifax’s website is currently receiving high traffic.
You can freeze your credit by using the following phone numbers and links:
* Equifax: 866-349-5191
* Experian: 888-397-3742
* Transunion: 888-909-8872
Depending on your state, freezing your credit can cost anywhere from $0 to $10 at each bureau. Proven identity theft victims can have this fee waived. (If you need to lift the freeze you will have to pay the same fee.)
To lift your freeze you simply contact the bureau used by the lender and provide your PIN to lift the freeze for a certain period of time. This can be done online or over the phone. It may take a few days for the freeze to be lifted so be sure to do it a few days in advance.
Was I affected?
You can see if you were a victim of Equifax’s hack by visiting equifaxsecurity2017.com/potential-impact/ and entering your last name and last six digits of your Social Security number. You can also wait to receive a letter from Equifax.
Regardless, take this time to freeze your credit. Given the sheer volume of breaches in the past few years, it is likely your information has already been exposed. Freezing your credit will give you peace of mind and is a crucial step in protecting your identity from hackers.
You may also want to visit CreditCards.com’s interactive guide, "Credit report sample: How to read, understand a credit report", which compiles and explains examples of items you will find on an actual report. https://www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/help/interactive-sample-credit-report-6000.php
Sources: The New York Times Company & Horsesmouth, LLC.
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