Are you worried that your data may have been stolen in the recent Equifax breach? You should be! And that’s not alarmist. It’s just a good common sense approach to something that can have far reaching consequences for everything from your job to your ability to buy a home.
If you’ve been swept up in the aftermath, frantically trying to figure out if your personal information has been compromised, you’ll do yourself a favor by assuming it has. Even if you’re not one of the 143 million Americans who are at risk from this breach, you could still be at risk from future – or even past – breaches.
Anyone who has a social security number, has ever applied for credit or a loan, has a driver’s license or has ever had a home address should be worried.
Rather than wring your hands, first understand the potential risks and consequences. Then, take the necessary steps to protect yourself.
The Potential Consequences Of Identity Theft
The personal information stolen from Equifax includes just about everything you’d never want in the hands of criminals: your name, social security number, birthdate, addresses past and present, driver’s license number and credit card numbers.
And if you’re not sure what criminals can do with that information beyond opening up credit cards in your name and causing you general financial grief, well, it may be worse than you think.
In addition to applying for credit cards, they can also open financial accounts and apply for mortgages – yes, in your name and at your expense. That can quickly shut down your dreams of buying a home, especially since it can take years to resolve cases of identity theft.
They can also get medical care at your expense, get a job in your name and leave you on the hook for taxes, even file for a tax refund in your name and disappear with the money before you’ve even added up your yearly receipts for the accountant.
Protect Yourself From Identity Theft
Given the severity of the consequences, it’s in your best interests to take steps to minimize your risk.
If you’re not in the habit of checking your bank statements and credit card statements regularly, that’s a good place to start. Be diligent about tracing every line item to an actual charge that you can verify. You’d be surprised by how easy it is to overlook charges, especially when you use your credit card for everything from birthday gifts to a quick sandwich at lunch.
You can sign up for a credit monitoring service but you’ll still need to keep an eye on your statements because these types of services don’t monitor everything. And if you do choose a credit monitoring service, read the fine print. Equifax offered free monitoring for potential victims of the breach but as a condition of the service, you gave up your right to sue them in the event of identity theft.
Be careful of the service you use – scammers are just as likely to take advantage of your personal information as your desire to protect it. There are plenty of “monitoring” companies that will only make your life more miserable, so choose one that is reputable and recommended by a reputable source.
Freeze Your Credit
Since applying for new credit cards, mortgages and other types of loans typically involves lenders checking your credit, freezing it will prevent unscrupulous criminals from gaining easy access. With your credit frozen, lenders can’t access it and will just about never issue a new loan or credit card.
But that also means that you can’t apply for credit or a loan, either – unless you lift the freeze. Your existing credit cards will continue to work under a freeze, but if you plan to buy a home, lease a car, sign up for a new cell phone service or apply for a last-minute store credit card to take advantage of a great sale, you won’t be able to do it before lifting the freeze.
There may be a fee involved in freezing or unfreezing your credit, depending on the state in which you live. And you’ll need to do it with each of the three credit bureaus – Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. But a small fee, typically between $5 and $30, is trivial when you compare it to the possibility that someone may obtain a mortgage in your name.
File Your Tax Return Early
If you’re the person who waits until April 14th to contact your accountant, you may want to rethink that this year. With your personal information in hand, a criminal can file a tax return on your behalf and then collect your refund.
Neither credit monitoring nor freezes will protect you from tax-related identity theft. If you’ve already been a victim of identity theft, you can request a filing PIN, which prevents a tax return from being filed without it. Unfortunately, those are only available to prior victims, and not the millions worried about becoming one.
Filing early, and closing the window for criminals, is one of your best protections. Gather documentation, receipts and whatever information you need so it’s ready to go. As soon as you’ve received any other documents, like 1099s or K-1s, you’ll be ready to file.
Be mindful of any unexpected documents that you may receive. For example, a 1099 from an employer you haven’t worked for may be a sign of identity theft.
Assume It’s A Scam
Yes, it’s time to be more skeptical than usual. That means being wary of phone calls, emails and even text messages. In light of this breach, you may be getting bombarded with calls, ads or messages for everything from protecting your accounts to lowering your electric bill.
Once criminals have something even as comparably benign as your phone number or email address, that opens you up to any number of scams. You probably already get hit with more telemarketing calls than you can stand. And those are just the legitimate ones.
The Do Not Call registry can’t protect you from people who are unscrupulous enough to steal your personal information in the first place. It’s up to you to be diligent about monitoring calls. Never return a call to a number you don’t recognize. And if you can help it, don’t answer them, either.
Be just as cautious with email, where scammers not only offer you all kinds of “deals” designed to steal your money, but can also persuade you to click on links that will ultimately download viruses or lock up your computer data so you can’t access it until you pay an exorbitant “ransom”.
There’s really no foolproof way to prevent identity theft. You can always close suspect accounts but you can’t get a new birthdate, so it’s up to you to monitor and protect yourself. Take some precautions now to minimize your risks, and be diligent about safeguarding your personal data in the future.
It may result in some inconveniences and a few extra fees but it’s worth it to protect yourself from what could become a lifetime of hardship if you suddenly find yourself on the hook for thousands of dollars in someone else’s medical expenses or are unable to buy a home because someone else already did – with your name and money.