According to reports released Sept. 7, hackers stole personal data, including Social Security numbers, addresses, birth dates, drivers’ license numbers, credit card numbers and credit dispute documents for 143 million consumers from credit reporting agency Equifax.
The breach, which occurred sometime between May and July, has been considered one of the most damaging data breaches in history. The stolen information impacts services like Medicare, which uses consumers’ Social Security numbers as identification numbers. The breach has served as a wake-up call for many consumers, with the realities of identity theft now front and center.
Read on for background about the breach and information to help you protect yourself in its aftermath.
What is Equifax?
Equifax is one of three credit reporting agencies. Along with TransUnion and Experian, Equifax works with credit card companies, banks, lenders and retailers to collect data on individual consumers, which is used to create credit reports. If you have ever purchased a car or a house, rented an apartment or have had to pull a credit report for any reason, these agencies have your information.
How did the breach happen?
Hackers accessed consumers’ personal information through a weak point in Equifax’s software. Equifax released a statement saying that this flaw has been fixed.
How can I find out if my information was compromised?
Equifax will send letters to the consumers whose credit card information and credit dispute documents were compromised in the breach, but not those who may have had their Social Security number, address or other information stolen. The company has set up https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/, an online portal that allows you to enter the last six digits of their Social Security number to determine if your information may have been part of the breach.
How can I protect myself?
In the aftermath of the breach, Equifax is offering one year of free credit monitoring to consumers, regardless of whether your data was compromised. Initially, this service had terms that forced consumers to waive their rights to future law suits. However, these terms have since been removed. Despite Equifax’s effort to extend protection to affected Americans, many people can’t afford credit monitoring—and thieves can use the stolen information for years after this breach.
You can take a variety of steps to protect yourself without formal credit monitoring:
- Pull a free credit report once per quarter. You are entitled to one free report per year from each credit reporting agency. Visit annualcreditreport.com to pull a report.
- Set up transaction alerts on your bank accounts that will send alerts for any transaction over a certain limit.
- Set a temporary security freeze on all accounts so thieves can’t open a new one in your name. Do this cautiously—credit freezes typically cost money, and it can be tough to reverse the freeze if you need to take out a loan for a car, a home or another large purchase once the freeze is in place.
- Check bank, credit and investment accounts for suspicious activity at least once per month. Any unfamiliar transactions should be reported to your service provider immediately.
- File your taxes early in order to prevent a thief from filing a tax return with your information.
It is important to note that Equifax will not call consumers if their information has been compromised—any calls that claim to be from Equifax are phishing scams.