Hackers have been at it again, but this time, they managed to strike pay dirt.
This week, credit reporting agency Equifax disclosed details regarding a massive data breach that gave fraudsters access to the personal information of up to 143 million U.S. consumers. Equifax said hackers managed to steal credit card numbers for about 209,000 consumers and access personal information on about 182,000 victims.
Equifax said it learned about the data breach on July 29, noting the information was stolen between mid-May and July of this year. Hackers accessed highly sensitive information, including full names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and driver’s license numbers.
To put it into perspective, this breach affects nearly half of the U.S. Census Bureau’s population estimate of more than 325 million people. It’s not the largest data breach in history — that honor goes to Yahoo — but it’s arguably one of the most alarming instances. Equifax maintains credit information on more than 800 million people, making it an identity thief’s dream come true.
“This is clearly a disappointing event for our company, and one that strikes at the heart of who we are and what we do,” Chairman and CEO Richard F. Smith said in a news release. “We pride ourselves on being a leader in managing and protecting data, and we are conducting a thorough review of our overall security operations.”
Equifax — the oldest of the three major credit reporting agencies in the U.S. — did not anticipate an attack of this magnitude, and the fallout of this breach could be eye-popping. Fraudsters have access to a wealth of sensitive information on millions of people, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. If thieves managed to steal your personal information, what you do next could be the deciding factor between fraud and freedom.
Safeguarding after data has been compromised.
Equifax has set up a dedicated website for the data breach that allows consumers to see whether their information was compromised and to sign up for one free year of credit monitoring and identity theft protection.
While the agency is making a good-faith effort to help consumers avoid identity theft caused by the breach, some experts warn it isn’t enough. As credit expert John Ulzheimer recently told The New York Times, thieves could have already used stolen information to open accounts with creditors using Experian or TransUnion.
While you should definitely consider enrolling in the free data protection and identity theft coverage offered by Equifax, there are additional steps you can take to protect yourself. If your data has been compromised — or you’re worried it might be — here are a few ways to safeguard your finances.
Request a free copy of your credit report.
In the aftermath of a data breach this massive, it’s natural to be curious about whether fraudsters have stolen your information and opened accounts in your name. Instead of worrying about the possibilities, get to the root of the matter by reviewing your most recent credit report.
Fortunately, the federal government has made it possible to get a free copy of your credit report from all three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — once per year. Countless sites offer free credit reports from these agencies, but www.annualcreditreport.com is one of the more reputable sources for an up-to-date report.
Check your credit score regularly.
While your credit report offers great details regarding your lending history, your credit score provides another way to stay on top of your finances. Your credit score incorporates a number of factors that include payment history, credit utilization, length of credit and hard inquiries.
Some lenders offer free credit scores as part of their standard service — Discover actually provides free FICO credit scores to all consumers — so there’s no reason to not track your score. CreditSoup offers a completely free credit score through reporting agency TransUnion. You simply need to provide basic information such as your name, your address and the last four digits of your Social Security number to get your credit score in a matter of minutes.
Watch your credit accounts like a hawk.
While the Equifax data breach involved about 143 million people, only a small fraction of consumers’ credit card information was actually stolen. Still, it doesn’t hurt to keep a close eye on your accounts.
Log in to your credit card’s online account management page every few days to check for unauthorized charges. It only takes a few minutes, and it could help you avoid a lot of trouble. If you have numerous credit cards, spend a few minutes checking each lender’s website at least once a week.
Set up a credit freeze or fraud alert.
According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the government has created several different tools to help consumers protect their identity and credit. These credit protection tools include initial fraud alerts, extended fraud alerts and credit freezes.
An initial fraud alert is your first option if you suspect you have or will become an identity theft victim. Meanwhile, an extended fraud alert can provide peace of mind once you have become a victim of identity theft or have filed an identity theft report with one of the three credit reporting agencies.
To set up an initial or extended fraud alert, consumers can either write a letter to the three credit reporting agencies or inquire about an alert through their respective websites. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers contact information — including the mailing address — of each credit reporting agency on its website.
Meanwhile, a credit freeze is a great tool if you want to completely prohibit the release of your credit file to new lenders. This might seem like a drastic step, but it ultimately stops anyone from stealing your identity or impersonating you. The cost and requirements for adding a credit freeze to your profile vary by location, so do your homework before you pull the trigger.
Given the frequency of massive data breaches — the Identity Theft Resource Center tracked 1,093 breaches in 2016 — it’s easy to become desensitized and dismiss the risks. Whether fraudsters accessed your information as part of Equifax’s massive data breach or through another incident, it’s important to monitor your accounts and set up protections to avoid the potential negative consequences of stolen financial data.