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The Big Takeaway From The Equifax Hack? Only You Can Protect Your IdentityTim Maurer, Director of Personal Finance

As fallout from the Equifax data breach continues, Tim Maurer covers the steps you can take now to help ensure you’re protected from the possible negative outcomes of this (or the inevitable next) mass identity theft.

What happens when one of the three primary entities designed to safeguard our financial identity to the outside world gets hacked?

We don’t know yet, but it’s quite possible that the answers will be illuminated in retrospect because Equifax waited more than a month to announce the breach.

What can you do at this time to ensure that you are shielded from the worst possible outcomes of this–or the inevitable next–mass identity theft?

First, specifically regarding the Equifax situation, you may consider taking two steps they have recommended (all while keeping in mind that this is coming from the entity that let the identity of as many as 143 million Americans slip through their fingers):

1) You can go directly to the dedicated Equifax website to determine if you were likely hacked, like I did. Hit the “Potential Impact” tab and then the “Check Potential Impact” button:

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You’ll be asked to put in your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number.  Then, you’ll get the verdict on whether or not they think your information may have been hacked. When I completed this process for the four members of my household, three of them were (apparently) spared while I got the undesirable response that my “personal information may have been impacted by this incident.” Awesome.

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Many, however, have found this online device lacks reliability. In at least once instance, the name of a colleague’s dog and a fabricated Social Security number returned positive results. [Insert contemplative, curious emoji.]

2) Regardless of whether your information was hacked, Equifax then gives you the opportunity to sign up for their TrustedID Premier credit monitoring system–free for a year to all Americans. There initially was some controversy over whether agreeing to receive the freebie would result in waiving your right to be part of a prospective class action lawsuit against Equifax in the future. They’ve since clarified that it will not.

But signing up for their credit monitoring service also seems convoluted, or perhaps my enrollment message appears clearer to you:

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If your journey to secure your identity continues beyond what the leaky Equifax has to offer–and it probably should–please consider these additional steps:

3) Monitor your credit. You can pay someone to do this, but I’ve yet to be convinced that it’s worth it, especially because you can get most of the promised benefits for free.

You can obtain a free copy of your credit report from all three credit reporting agencies at annualcreditreport.com. Order all three at once for the most comprehensive review or spread them out throughout the course of the year. But to be fair, reading a credit report can be like drinking from a firehose.

Therefore, you may consider a growing number of free online resources, like CreditKarma.com or Mint.com, that aggregate credit information in a more understandable and practical form.  Personally, I’ve used CreditKarma for years and found it to be very helpful as part of the following simple process:

  • Regularly glance at the homepage, which displays my current credit score from two of the three credit bureaus. Only if there’s been any significant movement in this score will I then…

  • Review any of the warnings that might explain the volatility in my score. If so, I might…

  • Review reports in full and take any necessary action.

This process has more than once served to alert me to activity that required follow-up.

4) You may consider taking the additional step of “freezing” your credit. It’s a process that looks different in each state, and I’d only recommended it if you don’t intend to use your credit in the near future. Otherwise, you’ll have to “thaw” your freeze to give prospective creditors the necessary access to your info.

One step, however, that I can’t see any downside to taking is freezing any existing credit reporting for your minor children. (Um, why do they even have credit reports, major credit bureaus?) If you decide to go this route, Clark Howard’s credit freezing guide is helpful.

5) Only use credit cards–not debit cards–for purchases. Despite Dave Ramsey’s objections, this way, it won’t be YOUR money that is stolen if you’re hacked. It’ll be the credit card company’s job to reclaim their funds.

This is advice that I’ve received first-hand from Frank Abagnale, the fraudster turned FBI consultant made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie Catch Me If You Can.

We can trust him now. I’m pretty sure.

6) Lastly, change your passwords to online financial accounts. If you were one of the 143 million people affected by the Equifax hack, you may wonder if hackers could gain immediate access to your bank and securities accounts. But you still hold some very important cards that they can’t see–namely, your password and any PIN numbers attached to online financial accounts.

It’s probably a good time to update and strengthen those.

But here’s the scariest news that has been highlighted by this new mass hack:

Unfortunately, we now live in a world where it’s not a question of if, but when, we will deal with having all or part of our identity stolen.

Sure, you could try to go “off the grid,” like Psycho Sam, the bush-man. But for most of us, the benefits to be derived by the online economy simply outweigh the risks. That means personal credit monitoring is a habit we must build into our lives.

This commentary originally appeared September 12 on Forbes.com

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