Equifax reports that up to 143 million Americans had their names, addresses, Social Security numbers, birth-dates and perhaps even driver’s license numbers stolen in a security lapse that began in March. Don’t bother using the Equifax tool that purports to help you determine if your information was accessed. Not only have people reported problems with it, there are fake websites masquerading as Equifax in an attempt to steal your personal information.
Just assume you are among the 143 million victims and use this breach as motivation to do some things that you should be doing anyway.
The three major credit reporting companies are required to provide you a free copy of your credit report (not your credit score) every 12 months. Get them now. Review them carefully to see what credit has been opened in your name, especially this year. If there is something you don’t recognize, contact that bank or credit card company immediately. You won’t be responsible for fraudulent charges, but the sooner you notify lenders the less difficult it should be to reclaim your identity.
Be careful though, as there are dozens of fake websites purporting to provide free credit reports. You are not required to provide any credit card information to get these free reports. I suggest using www.annualcreditreport.com. Even this government-authorized website is misleading, as it will attempt to sell you ancillary services as you navigate the process of getting your own information.
Don’t assume that a clean report now means that your information is secure. I fully expect thieves to file false tax returns and receive fraudulent refunds early next year. In February 2018, begin paying for a report from a different credit company every four months. By October 2019 you will be able to continue this cycle for free.
Reviewing your credit reports, however, will only let you know after someone has applied for credit in your name. You can also enroll in a credit monitoring service, but these services are also only after-the-fact reports of mischief, not preventative measures.
One of the most effective ways to prevent a credit hack is to place a freeze on your credit report. For a minimal fee ($7.50 in Tennessee), a credit reporting company will not release your credit data without your specific permission, making it almost impossible for a thief to borrow money in your name. The downside is that you must contact the companies and unfreeze your reports if you want to get a loan. After getting your mortgage or car loan, you should freeze your credit again. It will cost you about $25 and some aggravation each time you borrow money, but if you ask anyone whose identity has been stolen, that cost is very, very inexpensive insurance.
David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. This piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.