Earlier this month the credit-checking company Equifax announced a data breach that effective over 143 million consumers. That’s nearly half of the U.S. adult population. Find out what happened, why you should care, and what you can do to protect your identity.
What Happened in the Equifax Breach?
On July 29, 2017, Equifax discovered that cyber-criminals had gained access to their files through a vulnerability in the company’s website application. They got access to Equifax customers’:
- social security numbers
- birth dates
- credit card numbers
- drivers’ license numbers
The breach happened between mid-May and July, and was discovered on July 29, but that information wasn’t released to the government or the public until September 7.
Why Is the Equifax Breach So Important?
Equifax is one of the three main consumer credit checking companies in the U.S. It collects banking and lending data, including consumers’ private identification information, to rate consumers’ borrowing risks. Financial institutions use that rating to decide how much to give out to consumers in loans or on credit cards, and at what interest rates.
Consumers often are not even aware that credit checking companies like Equifax have their information. These personal details are collected as a part of the companies’ regular business operations. Lenders and financial institutions are the customers of these companies. Consumers’ data are more like the product.
The kind of information collected by Equifax is exactly the information needed by criminals to successfully impersonate consumers in identity theft situations. When hackers get access to these personal details they may use them to:
- Open credit cards
- Take out loans
- Reopen closed accounts
- File false tax returns claiming refunds
- Sell personal information to others
What to Do to Protect Yourself After the Equifax Breach
With 143 million consumers’ personal information at risk, and another 209,000 credit card accounts affected, you should be proactive to protect yourself and your credit score from identity thieves who get a hold of the Equifax data.
1. Find Out if You Were Affected
Everyone should take the time to find out if their information was exposed in the Equifax breach. You can do this on the company’s website.
2. Check Your Free Credit Report for Suspicious Activity
U.S. consumers are entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the three credit-reporting companies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Request a copy from AnnualCreditReport.com and look for any financial activity other than your own. If the report shows accounts you didn’t open, incorrect personal information, or inquiries from companies you never contacted, you may be the victim of identity theft.
3. Enroll in Free Credit Monitoring
To address the breach, Equifax is currently offering one free year of credit monitoring to U.S. consumers, whether or not they were exposed. Originally, using Equifax’s Trusted ID program appeared to require accepting an arbitration clause that would have excluded consumers from participating in a class action. However, following public outcry, this clause has been removed from Trusted ID’s terms of service.
4. Consider Placing a Credit Freeze
A credit freeze prevents anyone (including you) from opening new accounts in your name by preventing creditors from accessing your credit report. If you don’t believe you will need to access your credit in the near future, or are willing to take the extra steps to reopen your credit when you need it, a credit freeze may be one way to secure your identity. However, it does not prevent identity thieves from accessing existing accounts, and it won’t repair damage already done to your credit score.
5. Set Up a Fraud Alert
You can inform credit reporting companies that your information has been compromised through a fraud alert and ask them to verify your identity before issuing a new account or increasing a limit on an existing account. This isn’t an absolute lock-out, like a credit freeze, but it does make it more difficult for identity thieves to use your information.
Every U.S. consumer needs to take the Experian breach seriously. By taking steps to review and protect your credit report history, you may be able to stop identity thieves from using your name for their benefit.