It was recently revealed that Equifax had a massive security breach that exposed the private information (name, social security number, date of birth) of millions of Americans. Who is Equifax? One of the three largest companies that control your credit score. If you’ve applied for a loan, gotten a mortgage, opened a credit card, obtained insurance, or virtually any other similar activity there is a good chance they have your information on file.
How many people are exposed? The private data, including social security numbers, of approximately 143 MILLION people has been exposed in the hack. To put things in perspective, the entire population of the United States is 323 million. So that means that roughly half of the entire country is at risk of having their private information in the hands of the hackers. Flip a coin and you may have been exposed. What can a criminal do with your information? It is possible that they may apply for a loan, take out a credit card, file a tax return using your social security number and more. Even worse, the breach actually happened months ago, so it’s impossible to say who has your data now and what they have done with it.
Given the things that a criminal can do with your date of birth and social security number, this is not the kind of situation where you can afford wait and see what happens – investigate and protect yourself. So….what to do?
Here are the steps you can take to protect yourself.
- Run your credit report. Each major bureau should provide you one free credit report per year. I recommend getting one from each so you can see if anyone has been using your information already. If you see anything fishy then you will need to take further steps to remove the disputed item from your credit and may need to contact the institution or lender involved in order to inform them that they are dealing with a criminal.
- Freeze your credit. A freeze will require that anyone trying to open new credit in your name provide a PIN that you select as part of the freezing process. This is one of the more extreme actions you can take, but it will help prevent someone from opening credit in your name. This will also affect companies trying to look into your credit, so it can be a bit of a hassle for you. For instance when applying for a car loan, insurance, or the like the company may tell you that they can’t access your credit history – leaving you with some hoops to jump through. If you decide to take this action, then you will need to contact the three major credit bureaus. They do charge a fee which can vary, but should run about $10 each. You can either call each company or go through an online process to put the freeze in place. For Equifax click here to call, or here to use the online process. For Transunion click here to call, or here to use the online process. For Experian click here to call or here to use the online process.
- Fraud Alert: If you aren’t willing to do a freeze, then this is the next logical option. You can contact each of the three credit bureaus to set up a fraud alert. This will mean that a company trying to open an account in your name will have to verify your identity before doing so. The fraud alert should last 90 days. It will add a bit of hassle to your life if you should attempt to open an account somewhere and a freeze is probably a bit more protection over all.
- Taxes: If someone has your personal information they may try to file a fraudulent tax return in your name. This happens much more often than you think. I’ve had clients in the past who filed tax returns only to be told that they had already filed. They would then have to go through a lengthy and difficult process to prove that they hadn’t filed taxes, that someone posing as them had, finally allowing their own return to be processed. Trust me, this process is not fun or user friendly. To mitigate this risk, I also recommend you file your taxes earlier than usual, instead of waiting for the April 15 deadline.
- Enroll in TrustedID. Equifax is offering a free year of subscription to TrustedID. This service monitors the three bureaus, can lock and unlock your credit report, has identity theft insurance and internet scanning for social security numbers. BEWARE, though, that when Equifax rolled out this offer, they included an arbitration clause in the terms of service agreement that appeared to prohibit those who participate in the offer from then being involved in a lawsuit. Instead, they would have to arbitrate their case individually. When people found out about this, Equifax quickly offered the ability to “opt-out” of arbitration, if requested in writing. Gee, thanks. A $70 billion-dollar class-action suit has already been filed against Equifax for the breach, and if you are interested in participating, or want to discuss what your options are, make sure that you opt-out of the arbitration provision.
This post is meant as general information, not specific legal advice for anyone. Every situation is different. If you have questions, please feel free to reach out and I will happily discuss your options with you. We are all in a vulnerable place right now, my hope is that if you choose to implement these suggestions it will help restore your peace of mind.