The national credit reporting bureau Equifax announced late yesterday (Sept. 7) that it suffered a massive data breach affecting 143 million U.S. consumers.
The Equifax 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, including tax-related fraud.
This is probably the most consequential and careless 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. Based on the enormity of this massive data breach, we think you should assume your information has been taken (or will be taken at some point down the road).
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 to make it impossible for cybercriminals to open any new accounts in your name.
A security freeze also called a credit freeze, locks your credit file at each credit 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 repeatedly been fined by the government for unfair and deceptive trade practices. We believe you need to take steps to prevent your identity from being stolen in the first place so we don’t recommend that 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. There is also a lesser-known credit bureau called Innovis. We recommend freezing your credit with all four credit bureaus
You can freeze your credit by using the following phone numbers and links:
Freeze Your Credit With Equifax
Freeze Your Credit With Experian
Freeze Your Credit With TransUnion
Freeze Your Credit With Innovis
Depending on your state, freezing your credit can cost anywhere from $0 to $15 per bureau. Equifax has wavered to public outrage and is waiving their fee to freeze your credit. Proven identity theft victims can have this fee waived. When it's time for you to lift your credit freeze when applying for a loan or credit card, you will have to pay the same fee.
To "unfreeze" your credit 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 By The Equifax Data Breach?
You can see if you were a victim of Equifax’s monumental hack by visiting equifaxsecurity2017.com/potential-impact/ and entering your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number. After entering this information, Equifax will immediately indicate if you have been affected. If your personal information was hacked, Equifax will allow you to enroll in TrustedID Premier, a free service that monitors your credit file and protects you from identity theft for a year, even if you were not affected by the breach. Equifax will also mail out letters to anyone impacted by the data breach.
Whether you were a victim of the Equifax breach or not, you should take time to freeze your credit as soon as possible. Given the sheer volume of breaches in the past few years, it is likely your information has already been exposed. Freezing your credit now will give you peace of mind and it's a crucial step in protecting your identity from hackers.
Don't Forget About Free Annual Credit Reports
Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Federal law requires that Expedia, Experian, and Transunion provide you with a free copy of your credit report every year at www.annualcreditreport.com. Rather than apply for each credit report at the same time, we highly recommend you do this every 120 days by alternating between the credit bureaus. Always be on the lookout for suspicious activity or accounts you don't recognize. If you do see something out of the ordinary, you should visit https://www.identitytheft.gov/ to take steps to recover your identity.
Tax Return Identity Theft Will Increase
With the Equifax data breach of millions of social security numbers along with other intimate financial information, hackers could use this information to file a fraudulent tax return in your name. To avoid tax-related fraud, you should file your 2017 tax return in early 2018.
Think You're Safe Because You Froze Your Credit Previously?
If you froze your credit with Equifax years ago or even last year, it's very likely that your 10-digit pin number was compromised in the breach. You should contact Equifax immediately to obtain a new 10-digit pin number.
Please call us at (330) 836-7000 if you have any questions about this data breach or anything else and if you need help freezing your credit. We're always here to help you prepare for the unexpected.
You can also schedule an appointment with us here.
This information is provided for educational purposes only and should not be construed as research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy.