HOUSTON - If you have a credit report, then you are likely one of 143 million Americans whose personal information was exposed in the big Equifax data breach. Many of you are wondering what you can do now to protect your identity. If you are a recent flood victim, the steps you need to take may be different from other consumers.
The Equifax data breach exposed names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and in some cases, even driver's license numbers. This data might not be used today or tomorrow by a thief to open up a credit card in your name. It could be used five to 10 years from now. That means you need to safeguard your credit forever, but there are some deadlines you should keep in mind. To find out if your information was exposed, visit Equifax’s website. Click on the “Potential Impact” tab and enter your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number. Your Social Security number is sensitive information, so make sure you’re on a secure computer and an encrypted network connection anytime you enter it. The site will tell you if you’ve been affected by this breach.
Equifax will freeze and unfreeze your credit report for free until Nov. 21. After that date, the cost is $10 each time you freeze or thaw your account.
Freezing your credit makes it harder for anyone, including yourself, to open up new accounts in your name. If you want to take out a loan, apply for a job or buy insurance, you will need to lift the freeze so lenders or companies can check your credit. It does no good to freeze your credit with Equifax only. You also need to freeze your credit with the two other major credit bureaus: Transunion and Experian. Freezes with these two companies still cost you $10 to place a freeze and $10 to lift the freeze.
Flood victims, who may be applying for new car loans and disaster assistance loans, may find credit freezes too expensive and burdensome.
A fraud alert might be more effective. Fraud alerts are free. You only have to file with one credit bureau; and they will notify the two others. Fraud alerts allow creditors to get a copy of your credit report as long as they contact you first to verify that you are the one trying to open a new account. It's important that you provide a good phone number where you can be reached so they can contact you. Fraud alerts are only good for 90 days. You can set a reminder for yourself of the expiration date so you can renew it after that time.
You can also sign up for a credit monitoring service, but consumer expert Amy Davis doesn't recommend that you pay for one. You can do the job yourself by getting a free copy of your credit report with each of the three bureaus once a year. By staggering your request and getting a free copy every four months-- one from each bureau once a year-- you can get a better picture of what is happening instead of reviewing all three reports in the same time period. Make sure you check your bank and credit card statements often for any suspicious charges. To request a free copy of your credit report, click here.
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