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How To Protect Yourself After The Massive Equifax Data Breach

Lisa Gerstner, Equifax Data Breach

With Lisa Gerstner, Contributing Editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance

Massive Equifax Data Breach

In light of the massive and highly sensitive Equifax data breach, Steve speaks with Lisa Gerstner about this breach, about how consumers have already been or might be impacted, and what consumers can do to protect themselves in the event of such hacks.  Lisa is Contributing Editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, where she covers credit and banking, along with occasional stories on mobile technology and other money-related topics.

On September 7, 2017, Equifax announced a massive data breach where hackers accessed highly sensitive personal information, including names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and driver’s license numbers for up to 143 million U.S. consumers.  In addition, hackers had access to credit card numbers for about 209,000 U.S. consumers as well as dispute documents containing personal information for about 182,000 people.  With the breach impacting almost half the U.S. population, chances are high that the thieves got a hold of sensitive information on you or someone in your family.

Have You Been Impacted?

Lisa tells Steve that consumers can check if they’ve been impacted by going to www.equifaxsecurity2017.com and clicking on “Check Potential Impact”.  Users will then have to enter their last name and the last six digits of their Social Security number, and the website will immediately tell you if your personal information was compromised.

Equifax Offers One Year Of Free Credit Monitoring And Identity Theft

To protect consumers after the Equifax data breach, the company has offered a year of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection services from its TrustedID Premier service.  With this offer, consumers get access to their Equifax credit report, monitoring for changes (such as newly opened credit card accounts or loans) on their credit reports from all three major credit agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion); the ability to “lock” their Equifax credit report so new creditors cannot access it unless you unlock the file; monitoring of their Social Security number on Internet black-market sites where crooks buy and sell stolen information; and insurance to reimburse consumers for out-of-pocket expenses if they’ve fallen victim to identity theft.

Consumers have up to November 21, 2017, to sign up.

Other Options

When Steve says he no longer trusts Equifax, Lisa says he could, alternately, sign-up with services such as credit karma, LifeLock and Identity Guard that can help you spot identity theft, review credit reports, and receive alerts about changes to your credit report.

She also suggests checking if you can get free assistance from your bank, credit card issuer, insurance company, or employer.

Get Your Free Annual Credit Report

In light of the Equifax data breach and other data hacks, Lisa recommends getting your free annual credit report from each of the three credit agencies at AnnualCreditReport.com so you can review each one for accounts you don’t recognize, incorrect addresses, or other red flags.

Credit Freeze

Steve asks about the strongest measure consumers can take to prevent identity theft.  Lisa says you can impose a freeze on your credit files which will bar new creditors from accessing your credit reports and make it harder for identity thieves to open new credit cards or loans in your name.  Later, if you want to apply for a credit card or a loan, you can lift the freeze, and the inconvenience is far less than the amount of time you’d spend cleaning up an identity-theft issue.

Instead of a credit freeze, consumers could also initiate a free 90-day fraud alert on their credit reports so lenders take extra steps to verify identity on new credit requests, but will have to renew the alert every 90-days because ID thieves could wait out the three-month period before applying under your name.  And identity-theft victims are eligible for a free extended fraud alert which lasts seven years.

There’s a good chance your personal data has been compromised in the Equifax data breach so hop onto www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, check if you’ve been impacted, sign-up for their free credit monitoring service, and consider placing a freeze on your credit files.

Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital.  Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions.  Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.  The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.

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Steve Pomeranz: You may have heard recently that one of the big gatekeepers to our personal information, our financial information, has been breached. So, I’ve asked Lisa Gerstner to join me today. She is an editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, and we’re going to find out about this very serious Equifax breach.

Welcome to the show, Lisa.

Lisa Gerstner: Thank you for having me.

Steve Pomeranz: So, one of the gatekeepers to our most sensitive, personal information was hacked big time. What happened?

Lisa Gerstner: Yeah, so what happened is hackers managed to get into Equifax’s data, and they picked up some really key pieces of information on 143 million people.

So, that’s almost half the entire US population, even more of the adult population in the US. It’s so massive. And what they got were Social Security numbers, names, addresses, dates of birth. These are crucial bits of info that thieves can use to steal your identity. They could go open new credit accounts in your name; they might be able to file a tax return in your name to get a refund.

So, they could really do a lot of damage with the type of information that was stolen in this breach. So, both the scale and the information taken are a part of what makes it just such a big deal.

Steve Pomeranz: So, about half of all Americans have information residing at the Equifax computers. And it’s the information that’s the most highly sensitive. And let’s just look at that again. We’re talking about Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, in some instances, maybe driver’s license numbers, credit card numbers for about 200,000 consumers. And if you had a dispute that you were working on, the dispute documents containing that personal information, for about 180,000 people, were also compromised.

I mean, this is not a limited kind of a strike attack here. This is huge, and it’s going to affect a lot of people.

Lisa Gerstner: Right, it’s on such a big scale, and I think, at this point, a lot of us have to assume that our data is out there whether or not we go to the Equifax site and try to figure out whether our data was impacted.

That tool has been a little sketchy, people aren’t sure if it’s working properly. So, I think we just need to work under that assumption, and we need to do everything we can to protect ourselves at this point.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, that’s what we’re going to talk about now.  Equifax did offer to do something in response; what was that?

Lisa Gerstner: Right, so they are offering a monitoring service called TrustedID Premier. It’s free for a year, and it’s for everyone, even if the tool says you don’t think you were impacted by the breach. They’re still letting everyone sign up for it.

Steve Pomeranz:  TrustedID, is that what you said, Premier?
TrustedID Premier?

Lisa Gerstner: Yes.

Steve Pomeranz: Okay, go ahead.

Lisa Gerstner: Yeah, Trusted ID Premier, so it offers some different services. One of them is credit monitoring at all three agencies—Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. So, what that means is they will look at your credit reports, check them for any changes, maybe a new address, a new account, anything that would suggest an identity thief might be trying to steal your identity, and they’ll send you an alert to that.

So, it might be over email or over text or something like that. S that’s one of the services they’re offering. They’re also offering the ability to lock up your Equifax credit report so that new creditors can’t see it. You may have heard of the credit freeze. It’s similar in idea to that, it’s basically the same concept, where new creditors can’t see it.

You have to keep in mind, it only lasts for a year. Just as with all the other services that are offered with it.

Steve Pomeranz: Well, let’s get into that in a minute. So let’s take this slowly, so people can maybe write some of this stuff down.

Of course, we’ll have all of this at our website, stevepomeranz.com. So, if you’re driving, don’t stop what you’re doing. Just remember stevepomeranz.com, which is my mantra. But, yeah, so you can go to Equifax. There’s a website, equifaxsecurity2017.com, and there you go and you can check to see if there’s a possibility that your information has been breached.

Now, I’ve done this. Lisa, have you done this as well, have you checked?

Lisa Gerstner: I did, I went and checked that. They ask you to put in your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number.

Steve Pomeranz: Right.

Lisa Gerstner: And then at that point, they’ll tell you, we think your data may have been impacted.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Lisa Gerstner: Or we think not.

Steve Pomeranz: So, you’ll get a notice, basically. It’s kind of a posting, basically. And matter of fact, I took a picture of it when I got online. I sent it to some of my clients. And it seems to me that it’s kind of a plain vanilla thing and most likely everybody’s going to get one of those.

But it’s the next step that I think is a little tricky, not too tricky, but a little tricky, and it’s really important. Once you have been notified, they say okay, now come back in so many days to get this free one year service. So, tell us about that.

Lisa Gerstner: Right, so typically what they have been telling people, at least for the first few days, is come back on this specified date that we give you, and then you can start the process of enrolling in the service. But even then, as I found, you’re not quite enrolled yet.

So, it told me to come back last Thursday to sign up, so that’s what I did. I went in, I entered some information, and they said, okay, now wait for an email.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, yeah.

Lisa Gerstner: And at that point, there will be a link in the email to sign up.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Lisa Gerstner: And I’m still waiting for that email.

Steve Pomeranz: You are?

Lisa Gerstner: It’s been over a week. I’ve checked my spam folders; I haven’t seen it. And I know that this has been a common issue a lot of people have reported. They’ve been waiting several days.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah.

Lisa Gerstner: So, it’s a process.

Steve Pomeranz: That’s really bad.

Lisa Gerstner: Yeah.

Steve Pomeranz: You know, our sense of trust has already been breached, and now, again, they don’t seem to really…I don’t know whether they have their act together or not. It’s just the impression that you get as a layperson user of these services as to whether they have their act together or not.

Now there was also a big brouhaha because there was certain language in the original agreement when you were kind of signing up that was very controversial. Tell us about that.

Lisa Gerstner: Yeah, so they had inserted in the terms and conditions an arbitration clause, which basically would prevent you from joining a class action lawsuit in regard to this, and the people were concerned about that clause, rightfully so.

You want your day in court if you need it. And Equifax did turn around and said, okay, never mind, we’re going to take that clause out. We are not blocking people from lawsuits, either related to this TrustedID service or anything related to the incident. So, on that note, people should be okay if they want to make sure they protect their legal rights.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, so that’s pretty important. So, they’re urging you or offering you, this service, this one year service. So, kind of in an itemized way, let’s kind of go through what this service will provide you. Let me get it started. You’re going to get the Equifax credit report, which is something I think you mentioned, and that allows you to monitor for changes in your accounts.

What are some of those changes that you would be looking for in the case of a possible identity theft?

Lisa Gerstner: Yeah, so one of the main things you want to look for is just new accounts you don’t recognize. Or new inquiries, sometimes you’ll just see a little ping that says some bank checked your credit report.

Why did they check that? I never worked with that bank. It could or it may or may not be an ID thief, but that’s something to keep in mind.

Steve Pomeranz: Okay.

Lisa Gerstner: Actual new accounts; there’s a loan on there, there’s a credit card, something you just don’t remember ever signing up for that appear.

Those are the big red flags. Even things like a changed address, though, could mean someone’s trying to divert something in a different direction. On your current accounts, check things out. Make sure that the credit limits look okay, that everything looks about as it should, just in case someone managed to get into a current account without you knowing it.

Just do vet everything, make sure it squares up with what you know those accounts to look like.

Steve Pomeranz: Okay, so stay on top of your stuff, basically, whether it’s online or whether it’s in your house. Know where your stuff is and know what you’re doing and check your bank accounts from time to time on a fairly regular basis, see if there’s anything kind of weird going on in there.

Now, this ability to lock your Equifax credit report, it has pros and cons to it. What does it mean to lock the credit report?

Lisa Gerstner: Yeah, so what that means is new creditors won’t be able to see that credit report unless you unlock it and allow people to do that.

And so the idea is that if a thief tries to go open a credit line in your name or a loan or something like that, the lender won’t be able to view your credit report. And in that case, they’re not going to grant credit to that person. It’s supposed to protect you from new accounts fraud, and it’s the most effective way you can do it, either with this lock or with the regular credit freeze. So that’s the idea behind that.

Steve Pomeranz: Now, yeah, so you lock it, but let’s say you personally need to use it, then you’ve got to go in and unlock it. What is that process?

Lisa Gerstner: Right, so with the locking and unlocking it, it might vary a little bit. Each of these credit agencies, the lock and unlock are their own services they offer, and I believe it may involve going online, clicking a button, saying, okay, I’m ready to go shop for some credit.

I haven’t gone through that process myself, but I believe that’s how they do that with the lock and unlock.

Steve Pomeranz: Now, this service provides this lock for a period of time, I mean, this Equifax one-year thing. But in many instances, with the other credit agencies, you might have to pay for that service to lock and unlock, is that correct?

Lisa Gerstner: Right, so with the lock, unlock, it kind of depends on what each agency wants to do. I believe TransUnion has been offering a free lock and unlock service that you can sign up for. And I think Experian charges it through one of their monitoring services. So, that’s their own process they use for that.

But you also have the credit-free use, which is legally mandated in each state. So, this is a measure that does the same thing, but it’s kind of a legal measure that you can take and perhaps a little bit stronger.

Steve Pomeranz: Okay.

Lisa Gerstner: The issue is you do often have to pay a fee for that if you’re not an ID theft victim.

Steve Pomeranz: So, a credit freeze, where do you do that? How do you do that?

Lisa Gerstner: Yeah, so you need to go to each agency, look up the credit freeze with each one. You can call, or you can go online. And with each one, you want to set up the freeze.

And at that point, you’ll find out, okay, I live in a certain state. Here’s what the fee’s going to be if I’m not an ID theft victim. Some states charge no fee, but many of them do charge maybe $5 or $10 or something like that to place the credit freeze.

And so, at that point, lenders won’t be able to see your credit report.

Steve Pomeranz: I would say that spending that 5 or 10 bucks is probably well worth it, considering the cost if you are actually the victim of identity theft. Really quick, we’re kind of tight on time here.

Equifax is not the only option. You can go to other options, like Credit Karma. What are some of the other places people can go, either for free or to pay, to get protection?

Lisa Gerstner: Yeah, so with Credit Karma, they do the credit report monitoring service, where they look for changes on your report and alert you to them.

And they’ve actually just added a new one. So, they’ve been doing TransUnion monitoring for a while, and they just added Equifax. So, with them, you can cover two of the three agencies for free, which is a nice feature.

Steve Pomeranz: That is.

Lisa Gerstner: Also, check with institutions in your life.

Check with your bank, your credit card issuer, even your employer, your insurance company. Sometimes they offer free monitoring or free identity theft protection services that you can take advantage of and not have to pay for it. So, those are some places to start. If you really feel the need to be extra secure, and you want to get lots of options, you can look into paid services like Identity Guard.

They often offer packages that do the three-bureau credit monitoring and different things that you can do to protect yourself with those, too.

Steve Pomeranz: Very good, we will offer all of the web addresses and names that you just mentioned on our website. So, don’t forget, to get this information, to hear this interview again, you can go to stevepomeranz.com.

Lisa Gerstner, Contributing Editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance joined me today. Thank you so much, Lisa.

Lisa Gerstner: Thank you.