Your credit and your financial future are at risk. The Equifax breach is just the latest in a long line, and it’s the worst we’ve experienced… so far.
The truth is that your information is out there, it’s vulnerable, and criminals have access.
One protective step you can take right now, this minute, is to freeze your credit. A freeze stops people from checking your credit – and if you’ve ever tried to get a loan, you know that’s the first thing lenders do. So without that access, chances are they won’t approve a new loan (or credit card, or whatever they were checking your credit for).
Now a freeze is not 100% protection. A credit freeze is designed to prevent criminals from taking out new credit in your name, but does nothing if someone has access to your existing accounts. And if the criminals get access to your PIN or password – which happens when they raid the credit agencies like Equifax – they can unfreeze it. And the Equifax PINs themselves are pretty insecure (they’re based on the time you placed the freeze, though the company claims to be working to make them less vulnerable).
Even so, it’s a smart step to take to help keep fraudsters from using your information to get credit.
To truly freeze your credit, you have to contact all three of the credit reporting agencies, either by phone or online. They’ll ask you for a bunch of identifying information, from your Social Security number to your home address. And they will charge a fee, usually $10 or less, depending on what state you’re in.
Once you set the freeze with each credit agency, they’ll send you a PIN or password (you’ll get one from each agency) to confirm the change. Do not lose that number! You’ll need it to lift (temporarily unfreeze) or permanently cancel the freeze when you need someone to be able to check your credit. (Lifting and cancelling may also cost you.)
Here’s the contact info for each agency:
Equifax: 1-800-349-9960 www.equifax.com
Experian: 1-888-397-3742 www.experian.com
TransUnion: 1-888-909-8872 www.transunion.com
For an extra layer of protection, consider also putting a fraud alert on your credit. This free service lasts 90 days, and requires potential lender and creditors to verify your identity before they can check your credit (for example, they may have to call you to make sure it’s really you trying to get credit). To place a fraud alert, you only have to contact one of the credit reporting agencies – and that agency has to notify the others for you.
Remember, both of these steps – the freeze and the fraud alert – help stop criminals from getting new credit cards and loans in your name. But it won’t stop them from using the credit card numbers you already have, or draining your bank and investment accounts if they manage to weasel their way in. Look at all of your statements, every withdrawal, every charge, every month. If anything is unfamiliar or weird, report it right away.