How to Protect Yourself from Data Hacks

Equifax’s big data breach is scary. It’s not the last hack we’ll see either. They keep getting more massive, frequent and sophisticated. It can take you years to recover from resulting identity theft.

A data breach will eventually get you, if one hasn’t already. The recent theft of personal data from Equifax compromised more than half of us – 143 million+ credit files. It’s the largest and most insidious yet.

What data could these hackers grab? Since credit bureaus keep detailed credit histories, hackers could now have (and sell) everything in one concise file for identity theft, including your:

  • Name (and maiden name),
  • Social Security number,
  • Age and date of birth,
  • Current and former home addresses,
  • Employer(s),
  • Driver’s license number,
  • Credit card account numbers and activity,
  • Loans and lender info, and
  • Recent financial activities (if you bought a new house, got a new loan, etc.).

Just imagine what scammers could do with that data package for the next several years! So be proactive and….

  • Assume your personal data is already on the dark web…It is. It can eventually be sold, so take steps now to protect yourself. After someone uses your info, it’s too late.
  • Realize you are just a number for financial institutions. No one there cares more about your money than you. The same is true for securing your personal data…No one cares more about your data security than you. Stay on top of things with constant vigilance.
  • Understand you’re in for worse if you are a young adult. Those just building a credit file have a lot of financial history yet to create. Plus, they have a longer time to fight off identity thieves as their files are accessed by legitimate credit checks.
  • Remember that even if you have poor credit, it can still be stolen and used.

Protect Yourself! Here’s a list of action steps I’ve taken:

  • Be hard to crack. Most of us cannot change personal data – Social Security number, date of birth, name, home address. But you can make it harder for thieves to hack your data, and that may be enough for them to move on to easier targets.
  • Do NOT respond to a phone call from an “Equifax representative.” Equifax will NOT call you. This is a scam. Do not give out any personal information.
  • Check the Equifax list here to see if your file was compromised.
  • Change your passwords now. Yes, this a pain, but do not use the same passwords for all accounts. Make them stronger and longer, and consider a secure password manager like Dashlane, LastPass or KeePass.
  • Change security questions if possible. The more obscure they are, the better. Remember, someone who now has your first address, mother’s maiden name and/or school attended can connect the dots. Sneaky scammers can get your dog’s name, favorite vacation spot, kids’ names and more. (You put those on Facebook, didn’t you?)
  • Add a fraud alert on your credit files. You can do this through any one of the three credit bureaus’ websites below, and by law, that one must notify the other two. Fraud alerts are free for 90 days, or longer if you are in the military. (A fraud alert is different than a credit freeze or identity theft protection service.)

Experian: https://www.experian.com/fraud/center.html

TransUnion: https://www.transunion.com/fraud-victim-resource/place-fraud-alert

Equifax: https://www.alerts.equifax.com/AutoFraud_Online/jsp/fraudAlert.jsp

  • Add extra alerts at your financial institutions. Do this via each of your bank or credit union websites as well as for investment accounts, brokers and financial advisors. Each financial institution has its own alert system. You may be able to call and have a customer service rep do this for you. It probably has to be done for EACH account.
  • Consider a credit freeze. This usually costs money ($5-15 per agency) each time you freeze your file and another fee for each “thaw.” But no one can open new credit in your name unless it’s thawed, and that includes you. Equifax is offering free credit freezes for a limited time, but I have not seen free “thaws” offered. This makes it costly if you plan to apply for new loans and/or credit cards soon. You can verify the Equifax offer here.
  • Monitor every account you have – and do it more often. The sooner you see a discrepancy, the quicker you can stop someone. Notify authorities immediately.
  • Consider masking your credit card number to shop online. With a free service like Privacy, you essentially use a virtual number linked to your account but not exposing your real number– set it up before you need it. (And, NEVER pay online with a debit card and exposing your PIN, Personal Identification Number).
  • Credit monitoring protection? This is different than a credit freeze. Equifax said it is offering free credit monitoring service for one year. HOWEVER, you will need this more than one year! Scammers can be very patient, long-term thieves – your data might not be used for a few years, and then “Wham!”

EVERY year forward….

  • Request your credit report – your three reports are free from the government site, www.annualcreditreport.com. You’re entitled to request one per year from each agency (Experian, TransUnion or Equifax). You can request all three at once, or stagger them so you have a peek every 4 months. Credit reports from each agency look slightly different, because each tracks your info its own way. Both you and your partner should request credit reports annually (as should your college students or young adults). Remember you do not get your credit score, but your report history.
  • File taxes early. Fake income tax returns are possible so file early, especially if you are due a refund.
  • Medical identity theft is possible. Keep tabs on medical files to spot procedures and health insurance claims you do not recognize.
  • Monitor Employer benefits. You may have accounts you give little attention – like your employer 401k, health savings account, Social Security benefits not yet triggered, and more. Start checking these too!
  • Don’t become de-sensitized! Find more tips to thwart scammers here.

 

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