We live in a world where more and more our private information is becoming public. The security breach at Equifax is just the latest example.
The hack at Equifax is believed to impact up to 143 million U.S. consumers (practically half the United States population). Names, Social Security numbers, Date of Births and other personal information were compromised.
Identity theft can cause a number of financial problems, not to mention the time and hassle it carries with trying to fix it. An identity thief can use your personal information to rack up charges on your credit cards, open up new loans, and file a false tax return in your name claiming a refund, amongst a host of other potential abuses.
Equifax wasn’t the first victim of a cybersecurity attack and won’t be the last. While there is no silver bullet that will completely protect your information, there are steps that you can take to help mitigate the chances of being a victim of identity theft. One of the strongest steps is to freeze your credit.
The Federal Trade commission defines a credit freeze as “a tool that lets you restrict access to your credit report, which in turn makes it more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. That’s because most creditors need to see your credit report before they approve a new account. If they can’t see your file, they may not extend the credit.”
A credit freeze doesn’t impact your existing lines of credit (i.e. credit cards or mortgage). Rather it restricts any new requests for credit. If you need to eventually open a new account you will have to lift the freeze with the agency that the lender is using. For instance if you are going to get a new car loan, ask in advance what agency they pull your credit from and then lift the freeze from just that agency.
There are 3 main credit reporting agencies: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. So you would need to freeze your credit with each agency separately. You can do it online or by phone. When you place a credit freeze you will receive a PIN number from each agency. Make sure to keep that PIN in a safe place, as you will need it once you go to lift the freeze in the future.
I’d recommend most people, especially retirees who probably have no need for new credit, place a freeze on their credit reports. I did it for myself and found it very easy to do.
If you are someone that opens up a lot of credit cards or is going to be refinancing their mortgage (as an example) then it may cause some hassles. In addition some states, including Connecticut, may charge a fee ($10) to put a credit freeze on or to lift the freeze. If you are over 65 the fee is waived.
With that said, in my opinion these inconveniences are a very small price to pay for the peace of mind a credit freeze can offer.
Check your Credit Report Annually: Under federal law you can request a free copy of your credit report from each agency once a year. You can do this at annualcreditreport.com. When you review your credit reports look for anything that is suspicious or out of place. If you find something then visit www.identitytheft.gov to see what options you have and also contact the credit agency. You should make checking your credit reports an annual habit.
Regularly change your passwords: You should consistently change your passwords and don’t use the same one for all accounts.
Use two factor authentication: Two factor authentication provides an additional layer of security when you are logging into online accounts. Generally you will have to enter your password and then they require one additional factor for authentication. For instance, you may receive a code by email or text that you also have to enter along with your password.
We live in a world where our personal information is vulnerable, as unfortunately the Equifax hack has shown, but that doesn’t mean we cant be vigilant and take steps to help keep our private information private.