When I first heard about the big Equifax hack back in September, I didn’t understand what had happened exactly. What was Equifax? Why was the breach such a big deal? And just how worried should I be?
Given all these questions, my first step involved research. Here’s what I learned: Equifax is one of the “big three” credit reporting agencies. Per its website, it “organizes, assimilates and analyzes data on more than 820 million customers worldwide” and then provides millions of credit scores to consumers, banks and businesses each year.
In other words, it deals with a lot of sensitive customer data. And, from mid-May through July 2017, Equifax suffered a series of breaches that exposed that data, including Social Security numbers, addresses, birth dates and credit card numbers. When it first announced the breach, the credit bureau believed 143 million people were potentially affected by the hack, but that number has since grown to 145.5 million — or just more than 45% of the U.S. population.
Once I understood what the company's business model was and what happened, I knew I had to find out if my identity had been compromised ASAP. After visiting Equifax’s breach website (www.EquifaxSecurity2017.com) and learning that my information “may have been impacted,” it was time for more research.
The immediate aftermath
In case you haven’t heard, Equifax is offering all consumers — whether they were affected by the breach or not — one year of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection as a result of the breach. But, even though the service is free, I ultimately wanted my identity protected by a different company. (Having said that, there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of Equifax’s offer, especially if you are on a tight budget. Friendly reminder, though, you have until the end of January 2018 to sign up.)
Once I knew I didn’t want to utilize Equifax’s offer, I needed to decide what I did want to do. During my research, I discovered there are quite a few proactive steps you can — and should take — to protect your identity following a breach of this breadth. That includes credit freezes, password changes and frequent credit report monitoring. You can take most of these steps on your own for a low-to-no fee. Policygenius has a good explainer on how to survive the Equifax data breach right here.
Personally, given the legwork involved, I wanted some outside help. I also wanted to ensure someone was looking out for my Social Security number full-time, so I opted for a comprehensive paid identity theft monitoring service. Paid identity theft monitoring usually comes with some identity theft insurance (or vice versa), which can help you restore your identity and your credit post-crime.
Having said that, if you’ve decided to DIY credit monitoring, here’s how to tell if someone has stolen your identity.
As Hilary Hendershott, a Certified Financial Planner with over 17 years of experience, explained in her recent podcast, we have entered an era where we (the consumers) are responsible for protecting our own identities. So, in order to better protect myself, I’ve made a few simple changes in the wake of the Equifax data breach. Bonus: They took less than ten minutes to implement.
- I added two-factor authentication to all of my bank accounts, email accounts, retirement accounts and social media accounts. Two-factor authentication means, that, in addition to entering a password, you’ll need to enter a security code that has been sent to another device — typically your phone — to get into your account.
- I’ve started using a password generator to ensure that my passwords are strong and near-impossible to hack.
- I’ve begun aggressively monitoring my bank statements. Because I have accounts with four different banks, I make sure to log in to each account at least once a week to ensure that everything is accurate.
- I plan to file my taxes early this year. It’s the best — and really only — way to ensure a thief doesn’t steal your refund.
- I’m keeping an eye out. Late last month, Equifax announced, in a mea culpa from its new CEO Paulino do Reo Barros Jr., that it plans to offer a new free service designed to give people more control over their credit reports. There aren’t a whole lot of details around that yet, but Barros indicated you’ll be able to freeze and unfreeze your credit file at will and for free. Freezes currently cost anywhere from $2 to $12, although Equifax is waiving its charge through January 2018 — which, incidentally, is when this mysterious new service is set to debut.
What smart security steps, if any, have you taken following the Equifax breach? Let us know in the comments below.
Image: Borut Trdina