Guest view: After Equifax breach, be vigilant

Equifax recently announced a data breach that exposed names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, addresses and even driver’s license numbers for 143 million Americans. The same security breach led to over 209,000 credit card numbers being stolen.

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Equifax, along with TransUnion and Experian, are our three main U.S. credit reporting agencies. They are in the business of collecting the data that is computed into our credit score. This data includes open and closed credit cards, balances, payment data, mortgages, utilities and much more.

Over a month ago, some cyber-criminal group managed to hack into the Equifax corporate database and steal this information. We may eventually find out who the culprits were, but according to several cyber experts, the data stolen may be sold through dark channels and be worth over $30 million. The most valuable information is complete names/addresses/dates of birth/Social Security numbers with a credit card. And over 200,000 of these sets appear to have been heisted.

This is not new. Yahoo reported over 1 billion accounts were compromised a few years ago, and many of us were part of the Target system breach in which over 40 million credit and debit card numbers were compromised, leading to new bank and Target store cards with a new PIN system.

Cyber theft issue isn’t going away. Much like wearing seat belts for safety and watching our diets more closely than ever for health, we need to be extra vigilant regarding our electronic financial trails.

Resources available

First, you can check here to see if Equifax allowed your information to escape at , then scroll to the bottom and click on “potential impact” and then hit the maroon “check potential impact.” It is legit but uncomfortable to punch in personal data but then you’ll get a response of either “possibly compromised” (that’s a likely yes) or “not compromised.” (Editor’s note: It is, indeed, uncomfortable, but we checked the site ourselves.)

Either way, you can sign up for a year of free credit monitoring with Trusted ID. This will provide 365 days of credit monitoring across all three main U.S. credit agencies, provide a copy of your credit report, provide help if your identity is stolen, track your Social Security number usage, and a few other items. A link is sent to your email to confirm enrollment. I’ve done this as I was “possibly compromised.” After 24 hours, my email enrollment hasn’t arrived due to what they are suggesting is high enrollment.

And after initially stating that enrollment in the Equifax-sponsored Trusted ID would exclude you from pending and future class-action lawsuits, Equifax has taken that back and is now attempting some damage repair by removing that language.

This is serious stuff so there are some additional steps you can take to preserve your credit-related information.

First, watch your mail and email for anything suspicious. Don’t respond to anything you didn’t request and if you have a question, call a trusted person to help instead of. replying to an email. And don’t give any personal information over the phone – it is likely a phishing scam to get more of your information to allow for fraudulent credit cards.

Next, check your monthly bank and credit card statements for unauthorized activity. This is a time of heightened concern so cover yourself by balancing your checkbook and credit card statements in a timely manner.

If you can, change passwords on financial accounts. Yes, there is a concern that hackers could hack bank accounts but you hold a trump card: change your usernames, passwords and PIN numbers where applicable. Consider the same for your email accounts too.

Our firm continues to confirm with clients all changes of address, distribution changes, and scheduled and unscheduled withdraws.

Consider the merits of a short-term credit fraud alert or a long-term credit freeze. There are pros and cons to both but a credit freeze locks you up – no new credit applications and would need to be unfrozen to apply for something new such as a store credit card or auto loan. But, if existing credit information is stolen, such as what may have just occurred with Equifax, increased diligent is still necessary.

You can find details on the fraud alert and credit freeze at Equifax.com or call them at 800-685- 1111, Experian.com or 888-397-3742, and TransUnion.com or 800-916-8800.

Additionally, check in with your homeowner’s insurance company, as many will offer additional coverage for identity theft, including a team of experts to restore your credit. It is good to know who has your back if something happens. And worth knowing in advance of a problem.

Look at health insurance related EOBs closely – this is a newer shift in identity theft and with increasing deductibles, health insurance fraud is escalating. Report issues immediately to providers and insurers.

And we can’t forget that the IRS isn’t going to call you, they’ll mail you a letter. Talk with your tax preparer about the best ways to avoid tax-return fraud.

There will be emails generated to try to get you to pay for your credit reports but www.annualcreditreport.com is the location where you can get a free report annually. Since each of the three credit agencies must give you a free report annually, you can monitor your credit by spreading out your requests and obtaining a free report every four months.

I looked at my Experian report through this process (Equifax is far too slammed to provide it quickly) and while you don’t get a credit score on the Experian report, you can see if there are any potentially negative items. Honestly, it is pretty hard to decipher the data.

Thankfully, there are some free or low-cost online resources like Mint.com and CreditKarma.com that boil down our personal credit information into a simpler format. And then there are the monthly pay programs like Lifelock that offer services and guarantees.

There are differences between debit cards and credit cards. Consider using only credit cards. The credit card company will have the job to reclaim stolen funds if your card is compromised. It is a nice reason to rack up those points but be sure to check your statement and pay in full each month as the interest costs of a balance are astronomical.

Technological advances are great. But with these advances come new issues like texting while driving and data hacks. And as the Equifax situation evolves, we should take some proactive steps before the next breach occurs.

Ryan Fox is a partner at Huston-Fox Financial Advisory in Gettysburg and Hanover. He can be reached at 717-398-2040 or ryan@hustonfox.com.

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