How to find out if you're a victim of the Equifax data breach: Internet Scambusters #770
The Equifax data breach, in which 143 million records were mined by hackers for highly confidential financial and personal information, has caused an outrage.
But, in practical terms, what do you need to do to learn if you're affected? And how should you track activity on your financial accounts to check if your identity is being used by crooks?
We have the key answers in this week's issue -- along with a warning about scammers exploiting the recent hurricanes in the United States.
Let's get started...
What to Do About the Equifax Data Breach
Unless you've been cut off from all news for the past week, you can't fail to have heard about the Equifax data breach.
Equifax is one of the three big credit reporting and scoring agencies who are supposed to securely keep track of our borrowings, so other organizations can decide how much of a risk it would be to lend us more.
Their records are also supposed to enable us, as consumers, to check if anyone has tried to use our names to obtain credit -- in other words, whether we're victims of identity theft.
So much for that. The boot is now on the other foot. Equifax has disclosed that its own records have been hacked and up to 143 million personal records may have been exposed.
One hundred and forty-three million. That means most adults in the U.S. (there are about 240 million adults total in the country).
Are you one of the victims? Basically, if you have a credit report, you're probably affected. It's easy to find out. But before you do, read on to learn more about how to protect yourself and, if you're worried, how to freeze your credit so no one else can borrow in your name.
According to Equifax (see https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/) "the information accessed primarily includes names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some instances, driver's license numbers."
In other words, there's enough info there for an identity thief to get to work.
Furthermore, the firm says, credit card numbers for around 209,000 U.S. consumers, along with other documents, were accessed.
Free Monitoring -- Should You or Shouldn't You?
Equifax says it will provide 12 months of free monitoring of credit records for any victims, via a monitoring service called Trusted ID.
To do this, you have to visit Trusted ID to see if you're eligible. If you are, you can apply for monitoring and you'll be given a date from which your protection starts. But the onus is then on you, the consumer to follow through on this offer.
BUT here's an important issue that was bubbling at the time our report was prepared.
People who read through the terms and conditions of the monitoring program carefully discovered a clause which seemed to suggest that by agreeing to monitoring, users were waiving their right to go to arbitration or take part in any class action suit against Equifax.
As a result, some legal and security experts were advising people not to sign up for monitoring.
HOWEVER, over the past weekend, Equifax issued the following statement:
With that background in mind, to find out if you're one of the victims, you supply your last name and the final six digits of your Social Security number at the Equifax TrustedID Getting Started page.
If you want to take up the monitoring offer, you'll be given an eligibility date, which you have to remember, to activate the service. You won't receive a reminder, Equifax says.
(Whether you decide to take up the monitoring option is up to you and perhaps a trusted advisor -- Scambusters does not provide legal advice.)
How to Protect Yourself
One of the most important actions is, indeed, to monitor your credit report but you don't have to use Equifax.
In fact, if you use the free Equifax offer, it likely only will cover its own credit reporting activities, not those of the two other big agencies -- Experian and TransUnion.
You can get a free annual report from each of the three companies.
Several other organizations also offer no-strings free access, including some credit card companies and card-sponsored organizations.
See this useful report: How to Get Your Credit Report for Free.
However, it's crucial to note that monitoring your credit record will only alert you to any new credit applications. It won't tell you if someone is using your existing credit card to run up a big debt.
Accordingly, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests you can take the following action to protect yourself:
* Regularly monitor all your bank account and credit card activity. You could do this every day if you manage these accounts online. Many card companies now will send you a balance alert email every day. Check to see if yours does.
* Consider freezing your credit, which will make it tougher for anyone to take out loans in your name, though it won't protect existing loan accounts.
* Alternatively, consider placing a fraud alert on your files with the three monitoring agencies. This tells organizations that legitimately check your records that you may be an identity theft victim and that they should therefore confirm the identity of anyone seeking credit in your name.
* For the future, FTC says you should file your taxes as soon as possible, to prevent anyone else claiming a tax refund in your name.
If you suspect someone is using your name for credit or any other illegal purpose, you need to take steps immediately, including freezing your credit or adding a fraud alert as explained above.
Also, download the following ID theft recovery guide from the FTC: Identity Theft: A Recovery Plan.
All sorts of security questions are being asked about how the Equifax data breach could have happened -- but, in the meantime, it only serves to emphasize the vulnerability of virtually every one of us to identity theft.
Alert of the Week
Hurricanes barreling one after another in the southern United States have wrought havoc. But they've also opened up opportunities for all types of scams, from bogus or dubious charity collections to rip-off or unqualified contractors.
Be on the alert -- and only donate to charities you know and trust or those you've thoroughly checked out.
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!