More than 140 million people have been affected by the recent data breach at the credit bureau, Equifax. Though the full result is yet to be discovered, over 40 percent of the U.S. population is in the same boat.
Nearly everyone who has a credit score has had their personal information exposed — Social Security numbers, birthdates, driver’s license numbers and addresses.
There’s no putting the genie back in the bottle and no getting that information back. The danger is that your information can be used to open new accounts. You’ve just become a victim of identity theft. And the challenge is that hackers can wait years if they want before using that information. So what are we to do to protect ourselves?
The first step is to check your credit report. Go to www.annualcreditreport.com to request your report or call 877-322-8228. Look for new accounts that you don’t recognize. New loans or credit cards you didn’t ask for are the first clue that your information has been compromised.
Examine your bank accounts and credit card statements as well. Look for unrecognized charges. Sometimes thieves will test an account number by putting through a small charge. If that works, they will follow with a bigger charge. So pay attention to even the smallest numbers.
Make a habit of checking your credit report, bank and credit accounts on a regular basis. This calls for long-term monitoring of your accounts.
The next step is to put a credit freeze on your account. Freezing your credit means that no new credit can be established in your name until you lift the freeze. However, you may have to pay a fee to establish the freeze and a second one to lift the freeze when you need to get a new credit account. Right now, Equifax is offering free freezes until Nov. 21, 2017. Experian and TransUnion, the other major credit bureaus, are not offering free freezes because they haven’t had a breach. Freezing your credit only works if you put the freeze on all three bureaus.
Here in Alaska, you can freeze your account for a flat fee of $5 with each of the bureaus. To unfreeze it, it will cost $2. To freeze your account, simply contact the credit bureaus. Each has a different procedure for activating and lifting a freeze.
You can contact the companies through their websites or by phone. Equifax can be reached at www.equifax.com or by calling 800-349-9960; Experian, www.experian.com or 888-397-3742; and TransUnion at www.transunion.com or 888-909-8872.
Consider the benefits and the problems with establishing a credit freeze before you do it. It will stop thieves from opening up credit in your name; you can still get credit by unfreezing the account; it doesn’t expire, it remains in effect until you remove it; it costs less than a credit-monitoring service; and it doesn’t affect your credit score.
The drawbacks are that it only works if done on all three bureaus simultaneously; there are fees involved; it may take as much as three days for it to go into effect; and it has no effect on existing bank or credit accounts.
This data breach has brought a focus on the security of our accounts, but basic precautions should always be taken to protect your good name and creditworthiness from identity theft. At the least, all of us should routinely check our credit reports for signs of compromise. You have the most to gain by doing this or the most to lose by ignoring the situation.
Roxie Rodgers Dinstel is associate director of the Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Questions or column requests can be e-mailed to her at email@example.com or by calling (907)474-7201.
Update: I got the following note from one of our readers with some changes in the credit bureau policies. “I recently requested with all three credit bureaus freeze our credit reports. Note that for a couple with the same credit card, each spouse needs to request a freeze. FYI, Equifax claimed a freeze is free through Jan. 31. Also, all three assured no charges for unfreezing.” Thanks to Rob for this additional information.