Is your personal financial information secure? This is a question on many consumer’s minds these days in light of the recent report of a security breach at Equifax, one of the nation’s largest credit-reporting agencies, that may have affected nearly 150 million people.
Not only does this breach leave credit reporting information exposed to hackers and criminals, but it also has exposed personal financial information of millions of Americans, leaving them vulnerable to identity theft. So, what do you need to do to protect your credit AND protect your personal financial information?
About the Data Breach
The breach itself occurred between mid-May and July 2017 when cyber criminals gained access to sensitive data by exploiting a weak point in website software. As a result of the attack, sensitive information like Social Security numbers, birthdays, addresses and driver’s license numbers were compromised. In addition, Equifax said 209,000 credit card numbers were stolen, including information from international customers in Canada and the United Kingdom.
The recent attack on Equifax is the third major cyber security threat the organization has experienced since 2015 and one of the largest risks to personally sensitive information in recent years. The attack is so severe, in fact, it’s likely that anyone with a credit report was affected.
If you are concerned that you may have been impacted by the breach, Equifax has set up a website to help individuals determine if any of their personal information may have been stolen. Once you have navigated to the website, complete the following steps:
Click the “Check Potential Impact” button.
Provide your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number.
From there, a dialogue box will pop up and indicate whether or not your information was lost in the hack. All U.S. customers will also be given the opportunity to sign up for TrustedID Premier, which is an Equifax service that includes identity theft insurance, credit reports, and a service that crawls the internet and alerts you if your Social Security number is posted somewhere online. This service will be free for one year for those who sign up by Nov. 21.
If you have been impacted by the breach, experts recommend engaging in a credit freeze. This effectively locks down your Social Security number on your credit report and prevents criminals from opening up new lines of credit under your name. For more information on credit freezes, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website.
It should be noted that it may not be obvious that you are a customer of Equifax, as the company gets its data from credit card companies, banks and lenders that report on credit activity. As such, it’s important to follow the appropriate steps and check to see if your information was compromised.
Additionally, you should review your online bank and credit card statements on a weekly basis. This will help you monitor any suspicious activity. Contact law enforcement officials if you believe criminals have used your stolen information in some way.
Protecting Your Credit
Your credit history is vital to your future, which is why it is crucial to ensure its accuracy. Any time you apply for a loan or a credit card, your lenders and/or creditors look at your credit history—not only to deny or grant the request, but to determine your interest rate as well. Some employers even conduct credit checks on potential employees to decide if they are appropriate hires. Therefore, regular maintenance of your credit is a must.
Follow these guidelines to ensure your credit remains on target.
- Examine your credit report regularly and know your credit score. You can download a free credit report to look at your history in detail; if you see anything erroneous, notify the bureau and the creditor immediately. To find out your actual credit score, when requesting a credit report, you can also ask for your FICO score for a nominal fee. Anything above 700 is considered good, out of a range of 300-850. If you have not done this recently, now is a good time, especially in light of the Equifax Breach.
All three nationwide consumer reporting companies use one website, one toll-free number and one mailing address:
Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281
(To use the mailing address, you must first complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form at https://www.annualcreditreport.com/cra/requestformfinal.pdf.)
The above contact information provided is the ONLY way to receive an authorized free credit report. The website or the companies will never contact you first to ask for personal information – so if you get a call or e-mail, it is likely a scam. Also, be aware of imposter sites. Many websites will deliberately misspell a deviation of the above site, hoping that you will mistype and end up at their site – where they will attempt to collect personal information and/or sell you products. Remember, “free” should mean FREE.
- Freeze your credit. This prevents identity theft as well as discouraging you from opening any new accounts. You will be able to lift the freeze if you need a loan.
- Notify your bank to be on alert. Have your bank contact you if there is any suspicious activity on your account—or even a bounced check or negative balance that is your own fault. The earlier problems are noticed, the faster you can take care of them with minimal damage to your reputation.
- Never give out your Social Security Number (SSN). With the exception of your employer and businesses that need to do a credit check, be suspicious of anyone that asks for your SSN—including in an e-mail or over the phone, even if the person says he or she is from a reputable business. Con artists are becoming more sophisticated at polishing their scams, so be diligent. If the request seems legitimate, say that you will call the company back and do so with the phone number you have on file—NOT the one that the solicitor gives to you.
- Create complicated passwords and PINs. Devise a combination of letters and numerals if possible. Do not use your maiden name, repeating letters or numbers (i.e., AAA, 111) or consecutive numbers (i.e., 1234). Also, do not use one password for everything – although it makes things easier for you, it also makes it easier for criminals to figure out.
- Keep a written list of all credit cards that you own, along with their associated phone numbers. If your cards are misplaced or stolen or your home is burglarized, you will need that information in order to cancel the cards immediately.
- When using your debit card, choose “credit.” Some places ask if you are using your debit card as “debit” or “credit.” Either way, it comes directly out of your bank account, but if you select the credit option, you will have more liability protection, since the transaction is processed through the credit card system.