By now, amidst two major, debilitating hurricanes in the South and Southeastern parts of our country, most Americans also know that a major security breach occurred at Equifax, the global consumer credit reporting company.
According to news reports and press releases from Equifax the security breach — or leak of personal data — affected as many as 143 million Americans (that is more than HALF of the adults in the US with a credit history). There are numerous ways to react to this maddening occurrence. But most important, there are certain steps within your control that can be taken to defend against (while not entirely preventing) an identity theft incident happening to you.
- Assume your data was stolen.
- This means to take precautions as if your data was stolen.
- Change ALL your online passwords related to your banking, PaylPal, credit card and mortgage accounts (or all your online passwords – period).
- At Charles Schwab (and probably a lot of institutions) you can place a VERBAL PASSWORD on your account, as well, so that even over the phone no banking information can be discussed without you first giving them your separate, VERBAL password.
- Regularly check your credit card statements and online banking accounts for any transactions — big or small — that you do not recognize. Just like checking your email, perhaps checking your financial accounts online needs to be done (almost as) frequently.
- Ask your bank and credit card companies what security features they have available (like verbal passwords or monitoring services).
- Try using a credit monitoring service — free if possible — other than the “Big 3” of Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. One free, independent service that I found on the internet about two years ago, and has grown, is creditkarma.com.
- FREEZING your credit is another option. You can freeze your credit through one of the “Big 3.” Freezing comes with limitations such as,
- You can only sign up for credit monitoring or for a service like comBEFORE you freeze your credit.
- Freezing your credit may or may not be free
- UN-freezing your credit may be necessary to get a mortgage or a new credit card, and un-freezing usually has a cost.
- Overall, be cautious in how you use online banking, PayPal, money transfer, etc.
- Change your passwords frequently and monitor your statements.
Online banking, electronic money transfers and accounts are modern conveniences that most of us will use more and more over time. The Equifax breach was not the first, remember–
- The Targetdebit and credit card breach (40 million accounts in 2013)?
- the Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shieldbreach (80 million employee records in 2015)?
- the Ashley Madisonbreach (33 million user accounts in 2015)?
…wait, 33 million user accounts??!
And it will not be the last. Identity theft affected upwards of 15 million Americans in 2016. All we can do is increase our awareness and use as reputable, trusted financial services and providers as is possible.