Earlier this week Equifax (one of the major consumer credit reporting providers) announced that hackers had gained access to the personal financial information of 143 million people (or about 44% of the U.S. population). The type of data the hackers were able to get included Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and drivers license numbers. If you want to learn more about this data breach I highly recommend the article at Krebs on Security as well as his follow on article about the "dumpster fire" of a response that Equifax had to this breach (these guys couldn't have screwed it up any worse if they had tried).
One thing I kept asking myself as I read all the articles about this breach was what kind of choices or options we have as consumers in allowing companies like Equifax to have our data. Equifax and the other consumer credit reporting companies get our data because we allow them to have it. Each time we apply for a loan, a new credit card or a bank account the company we are doing business with has to do a check on our credit record and we give them written permission to share our personal data with one or more of these consumer credit reporting providers in order to do that credit check. So one way we might be able to avoid most of the consumer credit reporting providers is by never taking out any kind of load or credit card or major service, but that's not very realistic. In reality we are stuck with these consumer credit reporting providers. The Federal Reserve is a good resource on learning more about how these consumer credit reporting providers get their information and what our rights are as consumers with respect to the data they collect.
So now that we all have a 44% chance of our data being in the hands of criminals...what can we do? The best advice I can give you is to do what I have already started doing, which is to request a security freeze on my credit reports with each of the major consumer credit reporting providers (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion and Innovis). What is a security freeze? The Federal Trade Commission has a very detailed answer to this but the short answer is that if you freeze your credit reports with these 4 agencies then any company that does a credit check on you is denied access until you unfreeze your account. Why would you want to do this? If someone other than you has access to your Social Security number, address and driver's license then they can likely open up a line of credit or a bank account in your name with that information. Eventually you will find out about this, but not before the damage has been done. But if you freeze your credit reports with these reporting providers then your credit report is not given out and that makes it almost impossible for the bad guys to open up new lines of credit or accounts in your name. But doesn't that also stop you from doing that as well? Yes it does. But when you freeze your credit reports with these companies you are also given the ability to "unfreeze" your account as well. So if you know you are opening up a new bank account or applying for a car loan or a 2nd mortgage all you have to do is ask the company you are opening an account with which credit reporting agency they use and temporarily unfreeze that account until your credit report has been successfully pulled. Most people don't apply for new credit cards, bank account and loans all that often so this isn't much of an inconvenience. In my opinion the protection this gives you is much greater than the slight inconvenience you now have when you do need to open up a new account.
As I mentioned earlier I am in the middle of freezing my credit reports with all 4 of the credit reporting companies right now and below are links for how you can do the same. The fee for doing this is between $0 and $15 depending on the credit reporting company and whether you are currently the victim of identity theft (you have to have a police report documenting the identity theft crime in order to get this service for free). Remember you will have to request a freeze for both you and your spouse if you are married.
To request a credit freeze from Equifax with an online form go here:
To request a credit freeze from Experian with an online form go here:
I tried the online form but they required additional verification (photo ID and a copy of a utility bill or bank statement).The online page that lets you upload proof of identification documents to Experian is here:
To request a credit freeze from TransUnion with an online form go here:
TransUnion would not let me create an account with them to initiate a freeze online, so I had to call their 800 number to do so:
Then when I did call them and went through their automated system to put a freeze on my credit account their system failed and they had to connect me with a live customer representative. Except guess what, it was a weekend and their offices were closed. So TransUnion is one I am still waiting to put a freeze on.
To request a credit freeze from Innovis with an online form go here:
Out of all 4 credit reporting agencies Innovis was the most stright-forward and simple...go figure.
What ever you do, don't check to see if your data was leaked using the Equifax website or sign up for their free monitoring service without reading their terms of service first. Why? Equifax has you agree to NOT take part in a class action lawsuit against them if you use their online tool to see if your data was leaked or if you sign up for their free credit monitoriing service. Also, Equifax is asking for some of your personal data in order for their tool to work and do you really trust Equifax with any more of your data? It's doubtful that simply acknowledging terms and conditions on a simple web tool will actually protect Equifax from a class action lawsuit as I doubt this would stand up in court, but I would still stay away from giving Equifax even one piece of your data...they have already been proven they can't handle the responsibility. Also, for a more in-depth explaination of what is entailed with a credit freeze take a look at this article.
Stay safe out there my friends...