If you are among the nearly half of Americans who could be affected by the data breach at Equifax Inc. (NYSE: EFX) it is important to take some action to protect yourself from what might happen next. If your personally identifiable data was stolen in the attack on Equifax, you are vulnerable to phishing attacks, unauthorized new credit card accounts, and a wrecked credit history.
It is also worth remembering that you are not an Equifax customer. The company’s customers are financial institutions like credit card issuers, banks, and mortgage lenders. These companies supply Equifax (and the other two credit reporting agencies, TransUnion and Experian) with your transaction records which the credit agencies use to calculate a credit score that the financial institutions use to determine whether or not to increase your credit card limit, how big a mortgage you can afford, and whether or not to lend you money to buy a new car.
The accuracy of that data is your responsibility and there are several steps you can take to help protect yourself from any nasty effects from the Equifax breach. Here are seven things you can do to protect your data and yourself.
Get a Credit Report as Soon as Possible
All three credit reporting agencies are required by law to offer you one free credit report per year. Review them carefully and, if they are accurate, you can use them as a baseline for future comparison.
Sign Up for 24/7 Credit Monitoring
You’ll find out immediately if someone tries to open an account in your name. Equifax is offering free monitoring service through its own TrustID program, but there are several that are available free. WalletHub has a list.
Enable Two-Factor Authentication
Use your cell phone as another layer of protection when logging into your email account and financial websites. The process involves entering your password and having the website send an authentication number to your phone which you then have to use to get access to the account.
Request Fraud Alert
You can request a fraud alert from all three reporting firms. The chief benefit of this is that you will be notified if someone tries to open a credit card or bank account in your name.
A Freeze Is Better Than an Alert
If you really want to protect yourself from fraudulent borrowing, freeze your three major credit reports (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). This prevents anyone but you from accessing them, thus making it impossible to take out a loan or line of credit. There is a charge for this from each service, first for setting up the freeze and then for lifting it temporarily when you need to. Freezing your credit report is more effective than receiving alerts.
Suppress Fraudulent Info
While you can dispute run-of-the-mill credit report inaccuracies, if your personal information has been stolen in this case, it may be best to use a process called “suppression/blocking” to get rid of negative info resulting from the theft. In short, this makes it so the records in question can’t reappear after they’re initially removed.
Change Your Passwords
Even if you use a password manager now is a good time to change passwords on your most sensitive accounts, like email, banking, and investment accounts. If you are using passwords like “123456” or “qwerty” or “password,” it’s way past time to get serious.
It is worth repeating that you are just numbers to the credit reporting agencies and if you want your personal information protected, you have to take charge. In addition to the steps we’ve listed, monitor your monthly credit card and financial statements and never, ever respond to an email or phone request for you personal information unless you have specifically asked to be contacted by the requestor.