With as many as 143 million Americans affected by the Equifax breach earlier this year, only about 19 percent have taken steps to secure their sensitive information, according to a poll conducted by SSRS Omnibus in September. The Equifax breach made vulnerable the Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses and other confidential details of almost half of the U.S. population, but of those possibly affected, a substantial number of victims are unaware of how to ensure their privacy now. For those still reeling in the aftermath of one of the most significant data breaches to date, here are actionable tips for protecting themselves and their loved ones.
Find Out If Your Data Was Compromised
If you were an Equifax client at any time before the breach, the first step is to determine if your sensitive data was among the compromised information. To do so, visit the Equifax website and click the tab titled “Potential Impact.” You will be prompted to enter your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number. It is important to be connected to this website via an encrypted network from a secure computer. The same website was already hacked once, so don’t take any chances. Once you’ve submitted your name and identifier, the site will immediately inform you if your data was likely leaked in the breach.
Freeze Your Credit
If you were among the unfortunate clients affected, the next step in gaining control of this situation is to freeze your credit. Placing a freeze on your credit means that no one, not even you, can open any new accounts in your name. For a limited time, Equifax is offering a credit freeze to anyone whose data was leaked, so take advantage of this offering, even if it is too little too late. Keep in mind two things, though: 1) If you plan to open a new account, you will first need to unfreeze your credit file, a service that can also be performed by Equifax, and 2) that freezing your credit only prevents less than five percent of financial crimes.
Sign Up for Free Credit Monitoring
You are also entitled to a free year of credit monitoring through Equifax. This service works to inform you of activity on accounts in your name. However, it does not do anything to prevent that activity, nor does it stop it when it occurs. More aggressive forms of credit monitoring do exist, but they are not free of charge. Some consumers are alarmed by the notion that the very company that was compromised is the same company now profiting from the selling of data protection service, but with only three major credit agencies — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — all organized similarly, consumers are left with little alternative.
Create a Stronger PIN
With credit freeze and monitoring services in place, data breach victims should then contact Equifax to reset or establish their PINs. Though Equifax denies that PINs were involved in the data leak, customers are not taking their word for it. The purpose of the PIN is to confirm the customer’s identity in order to “thaw” credit freezes when the consumer is ready to do so. Unfortunately, as millions of customers called Equifax immediately after the announcement confessing the breach, they were assigned conspicuous 10-digit numbers as their PINs. Further investigation revealed that Equifax was issuing PINs based on the date and time that the customer called to create that PIN. Many were outraged at such an obvious, easily guessed algorithm was used to generate the personal code that could be used to re-open their frozen credit files, so when calling about your PIN, be sure to request a randomly generated number.
Breaches come and go, but the Equifax breach could have far-reaching implications for the future. Equifax’s handling of the situation has done little to set consumers at ease. To maintain their privacy and protect themselves in the aftermath of such rattling events, U.S. consumers must utilize all the tools and techniques at their disposal in order to mitigate identity theft.