Guest opinion: Protect yourself from Equifax security breach
Americans learned this month that their personal, financial and credit information was placed in jeopardy when criminals broke into databases storing that vital information at Equifax. The stolen records include names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, driver’s license numbers, credit card numbers and more.
Given the severity of this data breach, there are important steps you should take to protect yourself against fraud. At the outset:
• Place a free 90-day fraud alert with Equifax, TransUnion or Experian. When you place a 90-day fraud alert at any one of those three, it will automatically be placed at the other two.
• Place a free 90-day fraud alert at Innovis. Innovis, generally referred to as the “fourth credit-reporting agency,” does not interact with the other three agencies.
Because the credit-reporting agencies may try to steer you to products they sell instead of a 90-day fraud alert, here are the phone numbers and web addresses you can use to go directly to the fraud alert resources:
Equifax: 888-766-0008 or http://www.alerts.equifax.com
TransUnion: 800-680-7289 or fraud.transunion.com/fa/fraudAlert
Experian: 888-397-3742 (press 2; 1; 2; 1) or http://www.experian.com/ncaconline/fraudalert
Innovis: 800-540-2505 or http://www.innovis.com/personal/fraudActiveDutyAlerts
Next, go to annualcreditreport.com and obtain a free copy of your credit report from Equifax, TransUnion or Experian.
You are entitled to one free credit report every year from each credit-reporting agency. By rotating through all four credit-reporting agencies (Innovis also provides an annual free credit report at innovis.com), you can obtain a free credit report every three months. Review the report for any errors or credit accounts you didn’t open.
Now, the most important step:
• Place a security freeze (also called a credit freeze) at each of the four credit-reporting agencies. A security freeze prevents credit-reporting agencies from sharing your credit file with a creditor seeking to open a new account.
While this step will not stop all identity theft or fraud — nothing will — it is the best step available to prevent a criminal from opening a new credit account in your name. For most individuals, “new account fraud” is the most damaging type of fraud.
Unlike a 90-day fraud alert, you will need to individually place security freezes at all four credit-reporting agencies. Also, the state where you live will determine what, if any, fee the credit-reporting agency can charge to place, temporarily lift (so that you can open a legitimate credit account) or remove a security freeze. For Colorado residents, there is no fee to place a security freeze, but there is a $10 fee to lift or remove a freeze unless you are an identity-theft victim.
While placing a security freeze may sound complicated, for most consumers it will just take a few minutes on the phone or online at each credit-reporting agency. For example, I placed security freezes online at all four credit-reporting agencies in less than 30 minutes while a friend did so by phone in even less time.
Because the credit-reporting agencies may try to steer you to products they sell instead of a security freeze, here are the phone numbers and web addresses you can use to go directly to the security freeze resources at each credit-reporting agency (please note that some of these are different than previously mentioned):
Equifax: 800-349-9960 or http://www.freeze.equifax.com/Freeze
TransUnion: 888-909-8872 or freeze.transunion.com/sf/securityFreeze/landingpage.jsp
Experian: 888-397-3742 or http://www.experian.com/freeze
Innovis: 800-540-2505 or http://www.innovis.com/personal/securityFreeze
Finally, if you’d like more information and free resources, then contact the Identity Theft Resource Center at 888-400-5530 or idtheftcenter.org, or go to the Federal Trade Commission’s webpage dedicated to the Equifax breach at identitytheft.gov/info-lost-or-stolen (scroll down to Equifax).
Rob Douglas of Steamboat Springs is an authority on identity theft. His investigations and congressional testimonies have resulted in the enactment of federal and state consumer protection laws. Reach him at email@example.com.