This probably isn’t the first thing you’ve read about this year’s major data breach at Equifax, one of the nation’s three major credit bureaus, that has potentially put sensitive personal and financial information for about 143 million U.S. customers into the hands of cybercriminals.

Data breaches are increasingly common. But the backlash against Equifax has been especially harsh given the scale of the breach and, because, of all companies, we expect a credit bureau to protect this stuff. You can only imagine how we’d feel if a major bank leaked millions of account numbers!

While you can read endless articles about what happened, and why, they don’t change the fact that your personal data may be out there on the Dark Web for someone to trade and, one day, use.

So here’s all you need to know. These are the steps you should consider taking to safeguard your personal data, in other words, your “identity”. In our opinion, the Equifax breach doesn’t necessarily make you any more vulnerable than you were before. It’s just a good opportunity to reconsider how far you want to go in safeguarding your data.

1. Find out if your info was leaked (optional)

Honestly, I think it’s best to simply assume your information is floating around out there. Even if your identity wasn’t leaked by Equifax, there have been other major breaches in the past, and there will be more in the future.

That said, if you’re still curious, Equifax has set up a site where you can check to see if your information might have been compromised. Regardless of the result, Equifax is offering anyone with a U.S. Social Security Number one free year of TrustedID Premier, a credit monitoring service. The deadline to enroll for free access is November 21, 2017. Which leads me to my next point.

Equifax is offering a year of free credit monitoring to anyone with a U.S. Social Security number, as long as you enroll by November 21, 2017. Of course, you may not feel confident that Equifax—the company that screwed up—is the best company to protect you going forwards.

There’s no harm to signing up for multiple free credit monitoring services. The free websites Credit Sesame and Credit Karma are easy to use and give you basic access to your credit report and scores.

Why pay for premium identity theft protection when you have free options? It basically comes down to what the service will do for you in the event your identity is compromised. Free credit monitoring services may do nothing at all to help, or provide some limited amount of assistance.

TransUnion offers a $9.95 a month service that aggressively monitors your report and score and offers you your TransUnion report on demands. You’ll also get a one-touch credit freeze option. If your identity is stolen, you’ll have unlimited toll-free access to ID theft specialists and up to $1 million in ID theft insurance.

LifeLock is another well-known identity theft protection provider that is independent of the credit bureaus. LifeLock plans start at $8.99 a month and also come with extensive assistance in the event your identity is compromised. Premium plans also offer features other monitoring services don’t, like monitoring bank and investment accounts for suspicious activity.

Related: I Didn’t Think Identity Theft Could Happen To Me…But It Did!

3. Really, stop using ‘Password1’

“Your password is bologna1?”

“Used to be bologna, now they make you add number!”

Here’s the thing: You can’t help it if someone gets your personal information and attempts to hack your life.

But if they hack into your bank account because you use the same password across 100 websites—well, that one’s on you!

Security experts recommend frequent password changes, usually between 30 and 180 days. But let’s be real—we’re probably not going to change our passwords that often unless our IT guy requires it.

For starters, try to use a unique password every time. At the very least, use a strong, unique password for anything sensitive—email accounts, banks, investments, etc.

Finally, sign-up for two-factor authentication whenever it’s offered. Definitely use it for your financial accounts!

Two-factor authentication simply means that you’ll have to enter a unique access code, in addition to your password, when you login from a new computer. You get the code either by text message or from an app that generates the new codes every minute or so. It’s not as cumbersome as it sounds, and it makes your accounts much safer.

4. Consider putting a fraud alert or freeze on your credit reports

You have likely heard a lot about fraud alerts and credit freezes since the Equifax breach.

A fraud alert is a temporary measure that is supposed to prevent anyone from opening new credit in your name. You can set the fraud alerts online or by phone, and you’ll need to do it with each bureau.

A freeze works like a fraud alert, only it remains in place until you remove it. The credit bureaus may charge a fee to freeze your report, depending on your state. (After public backlash, Equifax has waived fees for freezing your Equifax report.)

It’s important to know that when you freeze your credit report, creditors and lenders can’t pull your credit report or credit score, so you won’t be able to apply for any loans. You can “thaw” your account with a unique access code each bureau will give you when you place the freeze. If you freeze your file, it’s critical that you don’t loose this code!

You’ll need to perform a freeze at each credit bureau individually. You can also do a security freeze online (if you trust it).

  • Your full name, including your middle initial any generational suffix (e.g. Jr., II, etc.)
  • Complete current address, and previous addresses for the past two years
  • Date of birth, month, day, and year
  • Social security number
  • Proof of identification (e.g. a photocopy of your valid driver’s license, passport, state ID, military ID, or birth certificate)
  • Address verification (e.g. utility bill, cell phone bill, pay stub. Do not send a credit cards statement, magazine subscription, voided check, or lease agreement)
  • Payment (check, money order, or major credit card)—if this is required

Equifax Security Freeze
P.O. Box 105788
Atlanta, Georgia 30348

Experian Security Freeze
P.O. Box 9554
Allen, TX 75013

TransUnion LLC
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19022-2000

Since Equifax has undergone a recent breach, you can visit their website for step-by-step instructions on freezing your credit.

If you’re not already in the habit of doing so, you’ll want to start checking your bank and credit card accounts frequently to see if there have been any transactions you didn’t authorize.

Most credit cards and banks (including credit unions) offer Android and iPhone apps so you can check your accounts on the go and report any issues quickly.

The same goes for investment accounts. Although you may not want to obsess about the daily ups and downs of your 401(k) or other investments, it’s a good idea to make sure nobody is trying to move money out of your accounts.

Vanguard and Fidelity expressly state that they offer reimbursement for your assets in the event of fraud, but take a moment to get to know your other investment companies’ fraud policies.

If you want an extra layer of protection for your financial accounts, remember that LifeLock’s premium plans monitor your bank and investment accounts, too.

While most major credit cards now give you access to your FICO® Score on your monthly statement, Discover credit cards go a step further. In addition to monthly access to your FICO® Score, Discover cards monitor thousands of risky websites and can alert you if your Social Security Number shows up. It’s one thing if your data is buried among millions of records in a leaked file, it’s another to realize it’s being posted online—an indication someone may soon try to use your identity. Discover’s service can alert you so you can take other steps, like freezing your credit.

This new service is just one of many consumer-friendly features from Discover available on no-annual-fee cards including the Discover it® Cash Back, the Discover it® Miles, and Discover it® Student Cash Back. For example, Discover cards also offer FreezeIt®, which lets you pause your credit card account instantly via mobile app or website in the event you realize your card is lost or stolen. Find your card again? Simply use FreezeIt® to unfreeze the account again.

Compare Discover cards or see why the Discover it® Cash Back is one of MU30’s most-recommended credit card offers.

Summary

Due to the recent Equifax breach, your personal information could be used to open fraudulent credit lines, steal credit card numbers, or even hack your bank account. Whether or not Equifax says you were affected, it’s best to play it safe and simply assume that someone, someday will get ahold of your information.

At minimum, protect yourself by using a free service to monitor your credit report for changes and using strong passwords and two-factor authentication on important accounts. If you want to go further, enroll in an identity theft protection service and consider freezing your credit files with each of the three credit bureaus.

Read more

  • Why Is My Credit Report Different Depending Where I Look?
  • How Credit Works: Understanding Your Credit Report And Score