Recently, it has been reported that hackers have stolen personal identifying and sensitive information from 143 million American consumers, including Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers, from Equifax, one of the three big consumer credit reporting agencies.
How this could happen is beyond my comprehension. Still, we must assume that we and our family members are part of the 143 million who are now ripe for having our identities stolen and personal information used by criminals to open accounts, file tax returns, buy property and more. No one else is going to do this for us.
The best approach here is to assume your data has been breached in this massive cyber break-in. If you do not have LifeLock (www.everydaycheapskate.com/lifelock) identify theft protection (I do, thankfully, but let's just say you don't have it), here are the steps you need to take as soon as possible:
1. Place free fraud alerts on all three of your credit accounts. Once these are in place, they will require any lender that pulls your credit reports to call you and verify verbally that you actually submitted a valid application for credit. You can create fraud alerts on any one of the three credit bureau websites. Theoretically, they share information with one another. If you do not feel comfortable with that or trust a simple fraud alert, you should do the next steps.
2. Freeze your accounts. Depending on the state you live in, this may cost you a few bucks. If you freeze your accounts, they are taken out of circulation. That means no new lender (a lender that you don't have a relationship with) can access your reports. Period. You can learn more about how to place freezes on all of your credit reports on the credit bureau websites.
3. Change your passwords. Do this especially for sites that contain sensitive information, like financial, health or credit card data. I know this can be a daunting task, but consider it absolutely necessary. Create the strongest passwords for the sites that contain the most sensitive information, and do not reuse them anywhere. Do it now. And if you were not doing so already, you will have to treat everything you receive online with an abundance of suspicion, in case hackers are trying to trick you out of even more information.
Equifax is offering one year of free fraud-alert service, TrustedID Premier, to anyone and everyone who wants it. There is nothing wrong with it at all. However, should you accept and depend on that, remember these three things:
—You will only get it for one year. Fraudsters are not stupid. They know to disappear for a few years to let the heat die down and then resurface to make use of your personal information.
—It only applies to Equifax. Enough said.
—You will waive some of your rights by enrolling in TrustedID.
If you do all of these things, you will have gone a long way to protect yourself. Just make sure you encourage everyone in your family to do the same.
In the meantime, if you are interested in quality identity-theft protection, check out LifeLock. If you enroll today, you will have immediate protection — no waiting period or conditions.
I have had this for many years now and cannot enumerate all of the potential harm that has been averted for me, my family and my staff members over the years.
Mary invites questions, comments and tips at [email protected], or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, a personal finance member website and the author of "Debt-Proof Living," released in 2014. To find out more about Mary and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.