So, you have likely heard about the Equifax cybersecurity breach impacting virtually half of all Americans. For most, this is a difficult concept to wrap one’s mind around. People who never gave Equifax permission to access their financial data could potentially be jeopardized. Under these circumstances, the more you know, the better you can protect yourself from identity theft.
Protecting information like Social Security numbers, birthdates, debit and credit card numbers can be time consuming and confusing. Below you’ll find answers to some of the questions you may have.
Equifax, one of three major credit bureaus in the U.S., is a global company that is headquartered in Atlanta and operates in 24 countries in North America, Central and South America, Europe and the Asia Pacific region. According to its website, the company stores and analyzes sensitive data on more than 820 million consumers, and more than 91 million businesses worldwide.
Initial reviews of the breach determined that it appears Equifax failed to install a security update that would have secured a known vulnerability on its website that cyber criminals exploited to gain access to Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses, credit card numbers, banking information, and even driver’s license numbers for millions of Americans.
The Equifax security breach was first reported as discovered by the company’s security team on July 29, 2017. Based on a company investigation, hackers had access to company files for more than a month between mid-May and July. It was later reported that a separate, earlier breach allegedly involving the same intruder was discovered by Equifax in March, five months before the company publicly announced the hack. Yet Equifax failed to notify consumers until September 7, 2017.
What does this mean?
It means that criminals potentially have all the information they need to pursue identity theft, credit card fraud, tax theft, phishing scams and other financial crimes against a large scope of the U.S. population. If affected, your information can be used to obtain a line of credit, merchandise and services in your name, create bank accounts, obtain checks, open phone lines or make major purchases.
How can you tell if your identity has been stolen?
Equifax has set up a website where you can quickly check to see if you are impacted. Any answer other than “no” means you are at risk.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, warning signs that your identity may have been stolen include:
Bank account withdrawals you do not recognize
Not receiving bills or other important pieces of mail that contain sensitive information or receiving bills that you do not recognize
Your medical records reflect conditions you don’t have
IRS notifications that another tax return was filed under your name
Changes in your credit score
What is a credit freeze and should I do this?
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and financial advisors recommend consumers act to protect their financial data by freezing their credit. Doing this will help prevent any new lines of credit being opened in your name. The most important precaution to protect yourself in the wake of this massive data breach is to place a separate credit freeze on each of your credit reporting files with Equifax, Experian, TransUnion, and Innovis. The cost can vary, but typically runs $10 per account. If you act before Nov. 21, Equifax has stated that it will waive its $10 fee. The freeze can be temporarily lifted if you need to make a major purchase, rent an apartment, get a credit card, etc. For the credit freeze to be most effective, you will need to freeze your account with every one of these services. To initiate a security freeze:
Click to initiate an Equifax security freeze or call Equifax at 1-800-685-1111.
Click to initiate an Experian security freeze or call Experian at 1-888-397-3742.
Click to initiate a TransUnion security freeze or call 1-888-909-8872.
Click to initiate an Innovis security freeze or call Innovis at 1-800-540-2505.
Should you register for free credit monitoring?
If impacted by the breach, your information may be available to cyber criminals for years to come. There are many credit monitoring services available for a fee, including those provided by the three major U.S. credit bureaus. While a monitoring service will alert you to fraud, it is not sufficient to prevent fraud from occurring once your data is out there. If preventing fraud is your goal as stated above, a credit freeze is highly recommended.
What other methods can you use to protect yourself?
It is so important to monitor your accounts and your credit so you can keep notice if a new line of credit is opened, or if any major purchases are made or attempted. If companies you do not recognize are checking your score, that could be a sign that someone is attempting to use your information to make a large purchase. By law, you are allowed one free credit report a year from annualcreditreport.com.
Monitor all accounts including savings and debit accounts. If affected, fraudsters have all the information they need to access your current bank accounts or have debit cards sent to a new address.
Change your passwords! If criminals gain access to your passwords on your bank accounts, it will be that much harder to remedy any damage done.
What risks should you be aware of?
If the hack wasn’t bad enough, scammers are looking to further take advantage of consumers in the wake of the Equifax breach. The Federal Trade Commission has warned of imposters and con artists posing as Equifax representatives to trick consumers into giving up more of their information in phone calls and phishing emails. Authorities also anticipate that criminals could attempt to file fraudulent tax returns in order to claim your refund.
Read more about these scams.
What is being done to hold Equifax accountable?
Several class actions and individual suits have been filed against Equifax. Civil litigation, including class actions, will allow consumers to further investigate the breach and be part of any potential civil resolution reached with Equifax, as well as push for corporate changes within Equifax.
What steps should you take to protect your rights?
If you choose to pursue litigation against Equifax, evidence of identity theft and proof of damages incurred could bolster your case. Save receipts, and document out-of-pocket costs and other losses you’ve suffered due to your identity being stolen or compromised.