The 2017 Equifax data breach that impacted approximately 143 million consumers is frightening and a very real threat to our finances. But the good news is there are tools and strategies that will help defend ourselves against potential identity theft.
We live in a new age. This hack is not the first and certainly won’t be the last, so we need to make securing our identity and finances is the priority going forward.
I have spent a lot of time understanding the most and least secure methods and these are the most effective steps to protect yourself from theft without having to rely on others. Take an hour to set yourself up. These steps should be taken immediately.
1. Order your free credit report from each of the three credit agencies Equifax, Transunion and Experian to make sure everything looks normal. These reports list all credit cards, student loans, mortgages, car loans and any other credit you have ever taken out in your name. You are allowed to view your credit report once a year for free from each agency and this will not affect your credit score. You can request one or all three here.
2. Place a credit (security) freeze with each of the three main credit bureaus plus the lesser known one, Innovis. A credit freeze is the most drastic measure and best line of defense against credit fraud because no one, including yourself, can open a credit account with a freeze in place.
If a freeze is put on, you will need to manually unfreeze your credit using a pin number in order to apply for a credit card, loan, mortgage and sometimes even employment going forward. It typically costs $10 to freeze and $10 unfreeze your credit, however, Innovis is always free. So it’s a $30 investment up-front to set up all four credit freezes. Unless you are applying for a credit card or loan in the next month, I highly recommend getting these freezes in place immediately.
If you need to unfreeze your credit for any reason, such as applying for a credit card, call the credit card company beforehand to find out which credit bureau they will utilize so that you can unfreeze one instead of all four (note: unfreezing may take a few business days). Then simply put the freeze back on afterward.
When a freeze is in place you can still access your credit report, and any creditors you have an existing relationship with can access it as well. The process is easy, will take less than an hour to set up for all four and should be viewed as the new normal going forward. Be sure not to lose your pin numbers and keep them stored in a safe place.
Remember, identity thieves look for low-hanging fruit, so a credit freeze should decrease the chances of any fraudulent activity with your credit. Set up your freezes using these links.
*Innovis will mail you a confirmation along with your assigned pin number.
3. Monitor your credit and debit card transactions online for any suspicious activity on a consistent basis. I have set up phone alerts with my credit card for whenever a transaction takes place. Keep in mind that fraudulent transactions on a credit card can be easily fixed, but debit card transactions are much harder to undo.
4. Having a credit freeze or other monitoring in place does not prevent tax-related identity theft, which is among the top scams and a very real concern. This occurs when thieves use your SSN to file a tax return and collect your tax refund before you do. The best thing you can do to combat this is to file your taxes as early as possible every year (beat them to your refund) and also monitor your account with the IRS.
The IRS allows for online access which enables you to view your most recent tax filings. I highly recommend signing up for this service today and monitoring it at the start of every year until you file your tax return.
So while there is no bulletproof method to preventing identity theft, these four steps will make you substantially more secure in this online world. Welcome to the new normal.