Alex Thomas Sadler, Clark.com
After Equifax announced it was the victim of a massive data breach that exposed personal information belonging to 143 million U.S. consumers, people have been asking all kinds of questions regarding what it means for them and how they can protect themselves.
So to help you better understand the details of the breach, potential consequences and what you can do to protect yourself, we’ve provided answers to some of your most frequently asked questions and concerns.
Equifax breach FAQs: What you need to know
Q: What information was leaked in the data hack?
A: A lot.
According to Equifax, the information exposed in the breach is more than enough to cause people some serious trouble — with criminals gaining unauthorized access to consumers’ names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and some driver’s license numbers.
On top of that, hackers were able to access credit card numbers belonging to more than 200,000 U.S. consumers — along with “certain dispute documents” that contain personal identifying information for another 182,000 consumers.
Q: How bad is the potential damage?
A: Very bad.
According to money expert Clark Howard, this data breach is the worst we’ve seen in modern history — and Americans will be feeling the impact for years — and in some cases, forever.
The information that was leaked is exactly what criminals need to wreak havoc on a person’s entire life — both financial and personal. When certain aspects of your finances are severely damaged, it can take several years to repair it, and for some people, their financial life will never be repaired.
This is why it is extremely crucial that you understand the implications of the hack and what you can do to protect yourself moving forward.
Q: How can I find out if my information was exposed?
A: Equifax has a special website where you can check.
Equifax has set up a specific website to help consumers find out if their information has been exposed. The company says it is also sending notices in the mail to consumers whose credit card numbers and/or dispute documents were exposed.
If you want to check whether you were impacted, here is the direct link to the page on the Equifax website: https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/potential-impact/. Just enter your information to find out if you were impacted by the hack.
Equifax is also offering consumers the option to sign up for free credit file monitoring and identity theft protection — but DON’T DO IT! It’s a waste. Here’s what you need to do instead.
Q: What exactly is a credit freeze?
A: Also known as a security freeze, a credit freeze restricts access to your credit report so no one can open a new credit account in your name.
A credit freeze prevents criminals from using your personal information to open new accounts or get loans in your name, since most creditors/lenders need to see your credit report before approving a new account. And in order to authorize the new account, they need to verify that it’s actually you — and when your credit is frozen, criminals can’t pretend to be you.
Once you freeze your credit with all three main credit agencies, you then receive a unique PIN from each that only you know and have access to. If the agency offers the option of email you your PIN, that’s a bad idea, in case your email were to get hacked at some point.
Important note: Do not lose that PIN — make sure to keep each unique PIN in a safe place where only you (or your spouse/family member) can access it!
Q: How do I freeze my credit?
A: You can do it online or by mail for all 3 credit bureaus.
It’s imperative that you freeze your credit with all three credit reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax.
The cost ranges from about $3 to $10 per person per bureau to freeze a credit report; a couple of states have higher fees.
Q: Can anyone see my credit report when it’s frozen?
A. Yes, but only in certain situations.
- Your report can be released to your existing creditors or to debt collectors acting on their behalf. These would be companies with which you already have credit cards, loans, a mortgage etc.
- Government agencies may have access in response to a court or administrative order, a subpoena, or a search warrant.
Q: Does a credit freeze impact my credit score?
According to the Federal Trade Commission, a credit freeze does not impact your credit score.
A credit freeze also does not:
- prevent you from getting your free annual credit report.
- keep you from opening a new account, applying for a job, renting an apartment, or buying insurance.
- But if you’re doing any of these, you’ll need to lift the freeze temporarily, either for a specific time or for a specific party, say, a potential landlord or employer.
- The cost and lead times to lift a freeze can vary, so it’s best to check with the credit reporting company in advance.
- prevent a thief from making charges to your existing accounts. You still need to frequently monitor all bank, credit card and insurance statements for fraudulent transactions.
Q: Should I sign up for Equifax’s free credit monitoring?
It’s not reliable and does nothing to actually prevent fraud. The best way to protect yourself — from any type of data hack or potential identity theft — is by taking two simple steps:
- Sign up for credit monitoring at creditkarma.com
- Freeze your credit with all three main credit bureaus
Q: If my credit is frozen, can I still use my credit cards?
Even when your credit files are frozen, your credit accounts remain open. You can continue using your credit cards as usual, and all of your credit accounts work just as they did before you froze your credit files.
Q: What are the cons of a credit freeze?
A: You have to thaw your credit to apply for new credit or loans.
If you want to open a new credit card, get a car loan, a mortgage etc. — you will have to temporarily thaw your credit with the bureau that the creditor/lender will be pulling your report from. It’s also known as a temporary lift of a credit freeze.
Before you apply for a new line of credit, contact the lender that’s issuing the loan to find out exactly when you should thaw your credit.
Bonus tip: If you’re applying for a loan or other line of credit, a credit union is your best option! You can see which ones you qualify for at CUNA.org.
Q. How long does it take for a credit thaw to take effect?
A: As little as a few seconds.
Thawing your credit can take just a few seconds — and once it goes through, you can apply for the new credit/loan etc. immediately.
Q: Does a credit freeze protect me from all fraud?
A credit freeze prevents criminals who get access to your personal data from opening new credit accounts in your name.
However, when your credit files are frozen, your accounts remain open — so you need to still be on the lookout for any potential fraudulent activity on your accounts.
The crooks may not be able to open new lines of credit in your name, but if they have the right info, they can still carry out fraud against you — by using your bank account or credit number, among other things.
So even after you do a credit freeze, you need to continue to monitor all of your accounts on a daily basis. If you spot any suspicious activity, notify the bank or credit card company immediately!
Q: Does a credit freeze impact or protect my bank accounts?
Well, a criminal would not be able to walk into a bank and open a new account in your name.
However, since your existing accounts remain open, a credit freeze does not prevent account takeover fraud — which is when criminals take over your bank account and steal your money.
Q: What are other ways to protect my information?
A: Follow these steps to protect your info following the massive breach.
Whether or not your info was exposed, you need to take steps to protect yourself!
Two things you need to do first:
- Sign up for a free account with creditkarma.com to get free credit monitoring and notifications of suspicious activity.
- Freeze your credit at all 3 main credit bureaus.
Next, do these 4 things to protect your info, money & identity:
- Monitor your financial accounts DAILY: Whether or not your info was exposed by Equifax, you need to check your accounts on a daily basis in order to spot any suspicious activity you don’t recognize. The sooner you spot it, the sooner you can report it and get everything straightened out. Plus, if your info was exposed by Equifax, criminals can still carry out fraud on your existing accounts.
- Don’t click on any official-looking emails or texts about the breach, your info, your protection etc. — they are probably from scammers.
- Equifax will send official notifications by mail.
- Change your passwords: NEVER use the same password for multiple accounts that contain your personal and/or sensitive information. Make sure to use a unique password — ideally a long phrase that only you would know — for each of your online accounts.
- This goes for your email accounts and any other online account that contains your personal info, like payment info, address etc.
- Turn on 2-factor authentication for every financial account, as well as any online account that contains your personal and sensitive information. Here’s a guide on how to set it up.
Q: Is LifeLock just as good as a credit freeze?
In fact, you can get free credit monitoring at creditkarma.com.