Equifax just disclosed one of the biggest data breaches in recent history. Find out how you can protect yourself from the hackers who stole 143 million social security numbers.
THE EQUIFAX DATA BREACH: WHAT YOU CAN DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF
On July 29, 2017 the major credit reporting agency, Equifax, discovered one of the most severe data breaches in recent history. For two months, from mid-May through July of this year, the personal data of nearly half the United States was vulnerable and exposed to internet thieves.
Equifax disclosed that hackers stole personal data, including social security numbers, credit card numbers, drivers license numbers, addresses, dates of birth and more, of more than 143 million Americans.
Equifax is one of three (well, it’s actually four), major credit reporting bureaus in the United States. These companies are Equifax, Experian, TransUnion, and the smaller, less acknowledged agency, Innovis.
According to the Equifax Company Profile, Equifax “uses trusted unique data, innovative analytics, technology and industry expertise to power organizations and individuals around the world by transforming knowledge into insights that help make more informed business and personal decisions.” Sounds really fancy and important, huh?
Equifax, and the agencies like them, essentially collect the financial information that makes up your credit score. This score plays a significant role in determining your creditworthiness in the eyes of most lenders. Without a credit report in good standing it would be extremely difficult for you to receive financial assistance in the form of loans or credit cards, which most people need at some point in their lives.
What is a Credit Report?
A credit report is a detailed report on your financial history. It notes the kinds of credit accounts you have, like a credit card or a loan. Furthermore, it records specific information about these accounts, such as the credit limit, any account balance you may carry, as well as your entire payment history.
Your credit report also holds information like any inquiries you have made for a loan or credit card, along with the approval or denial of each inquiry.
There’s more- your credit report also reveals any declarations of bankruptcy, foreclosures, suits, wage garnishment, and liens.
If you have ever applied for a credit card, applied for a loan, purchased a home, opened a checking or savings account, or missed any significant bill payments, Equifax, and the other agencies more than likely know about it. And now there is a high chance that hackers know all about your financial information and history as well.
What Happened and What Does This Mean?
In totality, it is virtually impossible to know exactly how many Americans the Equifax data breach affected, we just know it was A LOT of people- like hundreds of millions of people.
Consumer Reports states that that the social security numbers of more than 143 million Americans, the credit card numbers of 209,000 Americans, and other personal identifying information of 182,000 U.S. citizens were completely compromised.
This means somebody could be using your personal information to make purchases in your name.
Your personal information can allow someone to open new credit cards, take out large loans, or make extravagant purchases using your financial credentials. These internet thieves are obviously not going to pay back any of the loans of credit card purchases they make in your name, which ends up ruining your own credit score.
If you do not regularly check your credit score this activity can happen for years without your knowledge, until you try to do something that involves reviewing your credit report and are forced into a rude awakening.
What Can You do to Protect Yourself?
Staying informed is the best way to protect your personal information and your credit.
You know what a credit report is, but do you know the different actions you can take to safeguard your personal information and credit from hackers? There are things you should do right now that you will thank yourself for later.
Freeze Your Credit!
What is a Credit Freeze? A credit freeze, also known as a security freeze, allows you to regulate access to your credit report. If you or any other organization need to access your credit, you will have to lift the freeze, which takes time and probably some money too.
Although it may seem like a hassle, this freeze makes it much more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. If these people cannot access your information, they cannot use it.
Think of a credit freeze like putting your credit report in locked box, with the key buried in a secret location that only you know. A thief, or hacker, may have gotten ahold of your box, but without the key there is virtually nothing they can do with it. Most creditors and lenders need to view your credit report before opening a new account or approving a major charge- if they can’t open the box, they cannot grant any credit.
Another option is to lock your credit. A credit lock is basically a freeze, but lifting a credit lock is an effortless process that can usually be done online or even from your phone. A credit lock may seem more convenient, but it is also much more vulnerable to hackers.
When you lock your credit, your credit report is still “locked in a box,” but instead of the key being buried in a secret location, it’s just under the mat. The key is still hidden, but it is in an almost cliché spot where anybody could find it. It would be extremely easy for a thief to lift up your mat on the hopes that you might keep a key there, and simply steal it when you are not looking.
That’s why freezing your credit is the safest route to go. If you want to freeze your credit, you will have to do so with each major credit agency. Here’s how:
- To freeze your credit with Equifax, call 1-800-349-9960, or go to their website
- To freeze your credit with Experian, call 1-888-397-3742, or go to their website
- To freeze your credit with TransUnion, call 1-888-909-8872, or go to their website
- To freeze your credit with Innovis, call 1-800-540-2505, or go to their website
How Will a Credit Freeze Affect Your Life?
A credit freeze will not hurt your credit score whatsoever. Freezing your credit can only protect you.
A credit freeze will, however, prevent you from accepting on-the-spot credit-based offers. Like when you shop at Kohl’s and they ask you if you want to apply for a Kohls credit card and receive 60% off your purchase now. With frozen credit, you won’t be able to take advantage of those kinds of deals. But don’t worry, you’ll still survive without getting your discounted sweater.
Closely Monitor Your Credit Report
If you don’t want to freeze your credit, you should at least monitor your credit report extremely closely. If you see any suspicious or unusual behavior or activity, report it immediately.
Despite widespread belief, checking your personal credit score does not hurt it. In fact, according to Credit.com, 70% of people who checked their credit score 12 times or more a year said that doing so positively affected their credit behavior.
What does affect your credit score are “hard” inquiries. When you apply for a credit card, loan, or those on-the-spot credit deals, your credit takes a hit. Refrain from these types of applications unless absolutely necessary.
There are multiple ways you can check your credit score:
- Check your credit card or other loan statement – many credit card companies and other lenders allow you to access your credit score for free with their services. Take advantage of this perk.
- Use a credit score service (with caution) – you’ve seen their commercials and heard their catchy jingles, credit score services are everywhere. Although these places advertise as “free,” you usually have to pay for a monitoring service that comes with your credit score. Proceed with caution.
- Get your credit score directly from FICO – get your credit score straight from the source; although FICO charges you a fee to view your credit score, you know it will be completely accurate. Go to myfico.com to get your FICO credit score.
Is Equifax Doing Anything to Help You?
Know that this data breach was 100% Equifax’s fault. Based on that reasoning, you think they would be trying to rectify the situation. And they are. Kind of.
Equifax is offering a credit monitoring service called TrustedID Premier. Be careful, because although TrustedID Premier is free for the first year, if you wish to continue monitoring your credit after that year (which you definitely still should), you must pay a fee.
Let’s just make this clear, Equifax messed up on a colossal level by leaving personal information for millions of Americans vulnerable, and now they are trying to profit from it. If you think that is screwed up, that’s because it is.
Many people have joined together to file a class action lawsuit against Equifax. A class action lawsuit is when a number of people who have been wronged in a comparable way, will sue the defendant (in this case Equifax) as a united group.
When Equifax first launched the TrustedID Premier service, it was in the terms and conditions that anybody who enrolled in this program would forfeit their civilian right to join in a class action lawsuit against Equifax. Your that’s-screwed-up radar should be going off again.
In response to warranted public outrage, Equifax has since lifted this stipulation, though the TrustedID Premier service is still not free after the first year.
You can also go to the Equifax website to find out if your information has “most likely” been compromised or not. When you go to the website click, “Am I Impacted?” and enter in your last name and the last 6 digits of your social security number. After this, you will receive a message saying if your personal data was “most likely” impacted by this breach or not. Even your message says you were most likely not impacted, you should still closely monitor your credit.
Your best bet it to freeze your credit, or monitor your own credit with a watchful eye. Protect yourself and your personal information and stay on top of your credentials.