I f you weren’t impacted by the Equifax data breach, or the recent malware drama, or the fact that every single Yahoo account—3 billion in all—was compromised, you may be thinking, why does all this talk about financial protection this matter to me? The answer is simple: because your time is coming.
Equifax, which is one of the big three credit bureaus (Transunion and Experian are the other two), gathers sensitive personal information about you to come up with your credit score and let potential lenders know your credit worthiness. According to the bureau, hackers were able to penetrate its internal systems and access approximately 143 million customer records. The breach lasted from mid-May through July and the hackers were able to steal people’s names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and driver’s license numbers. They also stole credit card numbers from about 209,000 people and dispute documents with personal identifying information for 182,000 people.
This is one of the most dangerous data breaches in history. When a retail store is hacked, perpetrators only have access to that credit card’s information and possibly your name and address. But these hackers have every single detail of identifying information that you will have to use for the rest of you life. You can cancel a credit card, but your social, name, and DOB are here to stay forever. And sophisticated hackers will not use your information right away. They will sit on the data for 12 months, two or even ten years. And when they finally decide to unleash their greed and terror, it can become a costly inconvenience.
To combat this data breach, Equifax set up a website where you can check to see if your information was compromised and sign up for one free year of credit monitoring from the bureau. But read the fine print, because it may absolve the company from liability arising from the breach.
Here are some tips to protect yourself:
- Check Your Credit. Even before the data breach, this should’ve been a regular practice. Go to AnnualCreditReport.com to receive a free copy of your credit report from all three credit bureaus. You should also obtain a free score from Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, and your credit card company if it offers it. Paying attention to any discrepancies or suspicious items will help you stay ahead of scammers. And look at your inquiries to ensure that there isn’t anyone attempting to impersonate you. If you are a victim or feel that your credit report orscore seems off make sure you visit IdentityTheft.gov to determine your next steps.
- Monitor Your Existing Accounts. There is a lot that can be done with your information now that it is accessible to scammers. Make sure you are monitoring your credit card and bank accounts closely for charges you don’t recognize. Place text alerts on your accounts so you are notified about transactions that exceed a certain amount or seem out of your normal habits.
- Freeze Your Credit. Putting a credit freeze on your files may seem like a hassle, but it may be the best defense against this hack. A credit freeze makes it harder for someone to open a new account in your name. When you have a credit freeze on your file, no one (including you) can access your credit report to open a new account. You’ll be given a PIN number that you must use to freeze, unfreeze, and refreeze your file. Rules differ from state to state, but in most regions a credit freeze will last until you temporarily lift it or permanently remove it. In a few states, it expires after seven years. Also, depending on the state that you live in there may be a fee to activate a credit freeze (usually $5 to $10 each time you freeze or unfreeze your account with each credit bureau). To activate a credit freeze, you must contact each of the three credit reporting agencies separately
Former financial executive Ash Cash left corporate America to educate the masses on personal finance. He doesn’t dance now, he makes money moves. Follow him at @IAmAshCash.