In September 2017, hackers captured headlines after breaching Equifax — a major credit reporting bureau — and made off with the names, addresses, Social Security numbers and birthdates of approximately 143 million Americans. The unprecedented magnitude of this breach means that even if you don’t think you were affected, it’s best to assume that you were — but that doesn’t mean you have to be an easy target, now or in the future.
Here are some proactive, practical steps you can take to help prevent or detect fraudulent use of your information.
Credit Freeze: What It Is, and How It Can Help
Placing a “freeze” on your credit is the most important action you can take if your information has been compromised. A freeze means that your credit report can only be accessed when you affirmatively provide access using a personal identification number (PIN).
To place a freeze on your credit, you must contact the four (yes, four!) credit reporting bureaus separately. The cost to place a freeze is roughly $0-$15 per bureau. You can visit the Consumers Union® website to access fee information by state. You can “thaw” a credit freeze (if needed) for a nominal fee; in most states, a freeze stays in place until you remove it.
Follow the links below to request a freeze from each of the four bureaus:
The best way to safeguard your personal information and financial standing from fraud is to practice awareness. Here are a few simple steps you can take today:
Check Your Credit: Set a reminder on your calendar (every 120 days is a good frequency) to request a copy of your credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com. You’re entitled to one free credit report a year from each of the three primary bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
Practice Proactivity: Place a security freeze with ChexSystems; this platform is used by many banks to verify customers that are requesting new checking and savings accounts. You can initiate the freeze here. Also, continually monitor your accounts for unusual activity.
Watch Your Mail: Be sure to review your mail carefully, and look out for any unexpected notifications of new accounts being opened or unexpected changes to existing accounts.
Opt Out: To ensure you’re not automatically signed up for preapproved credit and insurance offers, visit OptOutPrescreen.com.
File Early: You can take an extra step to prevent tax return fraud by completing and filing your return as soon as possible before April 15.
Safeguard Your Digital Presence: Enable multi-factor authentication on your email and Facebook accounts. There are resources to complete this process for a variety of email servers and social networks:
The credit reporting bureaus are supposed to contact you to obtain approval if someone wants to view your credit report — however, they are under no legal obligation to do so. To ensure you do receive an alert in case an inquiry is made, put a fraud alert in place at one bureau. This alert will automatically flow to the other bureaus, with the exception of Innovis. Fraud alerts are free to place and last 90 days (though it is important to note that a fraud alert is not a substitute for a credit freeze).
There are a few important factors to keep in mind when it comes to credit monitoring services. Credit monitoring services are reactionary, meaning you’ll only find out that something is wrong after it has happened. Essentially, there are no other benefits to these services outside the scope of a breach. However, if a bureau or other organization is offering credit monitoring to you for free in response to a breach, there is no issue with using those services; if not, you can skip those services and save your money.
Good Security Habits
It’s important to remember that when it comes to fraud and identity theft, prevention is possible. A simple, yet highly valuable step you can take today is using a password manager, such as Dashlane or LastPass, which can safely store and protect your personal login information. As a best practice, you should also avoid clicking on any unsolicited links or attachments you receive via email, text or on Facebook/other social media platforms. These messages can contain malicious content that could be a catalyst for a breach.
When it comes to cybersecurity, the most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to be an easy target. By practicing caution and applying these tips to your everyday life, you can beat the statistics and stay one step ahead of thieves.