If you’ve been left scratching your head over the recent Equifax data breach, you’re not alone. The personal data of over 143 million American consumers is said to have been stolen – meaning, if you have a credit report, there’s over a 50% chance that your name, date of birth, social security number, address, and other data might have been stolen. This certainly isn’t the first big data breach to make the headlines in recent years, but the amount of data compromised with the Equifax breach is unlike anything we’ve seen and should be taken seriously.
Equifax created a website for people to see if their personal information was compromised. Once on the site, scroll down and click on “Am I impacted?” and provide your name and last six digits of your SSN. Equifax will tell you if your personal information was exposed to this breach and will simultaneously give you the option to enroll in TrustedID Premier for one year’s worth of free credit monitoring and $1MM Identity Theft Insurance coverage. The enrollment period ends November 21st and is free for everyone (even if your data wasn’t stolen), so pass this information along to your loved ones.
We live in a digital age and like it or not, your personal information is ‘out there’. If you aren’t doing so already, make it a habit to protect your identity. Here are some helpful tips for doing so:
FREEZE YOUR CREDIT: The best way to prevent someone from opening new lines of credit using your identity is to trigger a credit freeze with each of the three credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. The credit bureaus will usually charge a small fee to set this up, but implementing a credit freeze will prevent anyone (including you) from opening a new line of credit in your name. Leave your credit frozen until you are applying for a new loan or credit card and then ‘unfreeze’ your credit so that the lenders can access your credit history. Unfortunately, the ‘bad guys’ like to target children and the elderly. So, if you have minor children or assist elderly parents with their finances, ask the credit bureaus how you can freeze their credit as well.
ESTABLISH FRAUD ALERTS: Fraud Alerts can also be established through the credit bureaus. The alerts usually last for around 90-days and require the credit bureaus to verify your identity any time credit is being opened in your name. You’ll just need to remember to turn the fraud alerts back on, after they expire. Although Fraud Alerts are not as robust as a credit freeze, they’ll provide an extra layer of verification to help keep your credit secure.
MONITOR YOUR CREDIT REPORT: Each of the three credit bureaus allows you to access one free credit report every 12 months. If you rotate across bureaus, you could request one new credit report every four months. Though it might seem a little obsessive, this is a great way to make sure new accounts aren’t being opened in your name.
MONITOR BANK & CREDIT CARD STATEMENTS: We’re probably all guilty of not tracking expenses as closely as we should. When you can make purchases by swiping a piece of plastic and then pay off one big bill every month, it’s easy to lose track of what you’re spending money on. The reality is, everyone should know where their dollars are going. Whether it’s reviewing monthly statements or utilizing an online budgeting tool, make a habit of tracking expenses. This will help you catch any fraudulent charges that may arise on your accounts.
CHANGE CREDENTIALS: Online passwords should be complex and un-predictable. Yes, it’s a pain in the neck, but periodically changing passwords literally keeps the bad guys guessing. Try creating passwords based on phrases – or use symbols, numbers, and a combination of lower & upper-case letters. If you need help coming up with a strong password, consider using a password generator.
MULTI-FACTOR AUTHENTICATION: This is an extra layer of security that requires information beyond your username and password. For example, when attempting to sign into your account, you can elect to receive an email or text message with a code needed for final verification. For any of your online accounts that offer it (especially financial accounts), set this up.
FILE TAXES EARLY: Identity thieves will often use stolen social security numbers to file fraudulent tax returns and claim a refund. The best way to prevent this is by filing your taxes early. Take a few minutes to read the IRS’s guide on tax fraud to protect against tax related scams.
Unfortunately, identity theft is here to stay and so monitoring the integrity of your personal information is crucial. Implementing these recommendations won’t guarantee that your sensitive information is safe, but it will dramatically decrease the probability you will fall victim to identity fraud.
David Kern is a Wealth Management Advisor at Wealthquest – a Cincinnati based financial planning and wealth management firm that offers a full range of financial services under one roof, for one simple fee.