Most of you may have heard about the data breach at Equifax, one of the three major credit bureaus in the U.S. It was reported that personal information from 143 million consumers had been exposed to the hackers. This incident really shocked me and made me give a second thought about my own identity protection plan. In this post, instead of giving some general guidance, I will share what I have done before and after this incident for myself and my family.
To start, let’s review some basic facts about this incident. On September 7, 2017, Equifax announced that several unauthorized accesses went into their certain files from mid-May through July 2017. It may potentially impact about 143 million consumers. Personal information has been exposed, such as names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses and even driver’s license numbers in some cases. The hackers also accessed credit card numbers for approximately 209,000 U.S. consumers and dispute documents with identity information for approximately 182,000 U.S. consumers. You could read more about the details of the incident here.
Now, what’s my own identity protection plan?
Before the incident
First and foremost, I have text and email alert system set up for all my bank accounts and credit cards. I instantly receive a text or email or even both if there is any activity on my account. It has helped me timely identify a couple of fraud transactions and avoided any potential financial losses. For instance, two years ago, I got a text message from my bank showing an over $3,000 credit card purchase in a well-known luxury handbag store. After I confirmed with my wife, I called my bank and reported the fraud. They froze my card and sent out a new card to me right away with no charges. Here is the general rule of thumb, the earlier you identify an identity theft, the less time and money you will need to spend to deal with it.
Secondly, every year I check my credit reports from all three major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, and make sure that my personal information is correct. I have successfully filed two disputes to two credit bureaus and fixed my credit reports. The best place to get an annual free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus is through https://www.annualcreditreport.com.
Also, I have been using Credit Karma to check and monitor my credit scores and reports for free. There are some other free tools available like Credit Seasome and Quizzle. Each of them has some unique features. The main reason I choose Credit Karma is that it monitors my credit scores and reports from both TransUnion and Equifax. Credit Seasome and Quizzle only track one. You could find more detailed comparisons between the three here.
Last but not least, I signed up a free account with Experian directly early this year to track and monitor my Experian score and report. As I mentioned above, Credit Karma only tracks credit information from two major credit bureaus: TranUnion and Equifax. But Experian is widely used by lenders in the west coast. Also, unlike the estimated scores provided by Credit Karma, Credit Seasome or Quizzle, the credit score I get from Experian is my actual FICO score used by most lenders. You could learn more about the different credit scores from one of my previous post here.
After the incident
Found out whether my information has been compromised.
I went to a site (no longer valid) that Equifax created specifically for this data breach. I checked for four family members, including myself. It turned out that only one of us was not potentially affected by this incident according to the site.
Enrolled in the complimentary identity theft protection and credit file monitoring services provided by Equifax.
I went to Equifax’s website and signed up their one-year complimentary TrustedID Premier Service due to this breach. It will monitor my credit files from all three major credit bureaus, help me lock rather than freeze my Equifax credit report (I will explain the difference later) and provide me up to $1 million identity theft insurance.
Requested my free credit reports from the three credit bureaus through https://www.annualcreditreport.com/.
Double-checked my credit information in Credit Karma and Experian accounts.
Giving that my credit files have constantly been monitored by them, I did not notice any signs of identity theft from these accounts so far.
Placed a credit freeze on my Experian files and a credit lock on my TransUnion and Equifax files.
This is actually the most important step I took after this data breach. Everything I did before was just trying to help me identify and deal with any identity theft after it has already happened. On the other hand, a credit freeze or a credit lock could help me try to prevent it from happening in the first place.
A credit lock is similar to a credit freeze. The advantage of credit lock is that I could lock or unlock my credit information anytime without paying additional fees. Both Experian and Equifax offer this feature as part of their paid identity theft protection package costing from $9.99/month to $19.99/month. Only Transunion offers a free TrueIdentiy program. As mentioned above, Equifax is now offering a one-year complimentary TrustedID Premier Service due to the data breach. Upon the end of the one-year complimentary period, I will stop it and choose to freeze my Equifax account instead. For Experian, I simply followed the “Credit Freeze Guide” by Clark Howard and froze my Experian files. The guide gave me detailed instructions on how to freeze and lift/thaw your credit files with all three major credit bureaus.
After all these work, I am finally feeling comfortable with my own identity protection plan again. I am still in the process of helping my family freeze their accounts. One final piece of my plan related to this data breach is to avoid any potential tax-related identity thefts. This type of identity theft cannot be identified by monitoring your credit files. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the best thing you can do is to file your tax return as soon as possible before a scammer can. This is exactly what I am working on right now.
In the end, besides my own identity protection plan, I would like to share with you a very useful site from Federal Trade Commission: https://www.identitytheft.gov. It gives you specific guidance on what to do next no matter whether you are currently having an identity theft or just have concerns about it.