Data breaches and hacking have become a huge issue, as major companies like Target, J.P. Morgan Chase and EBay can tell you. But Equifax's recent admission of a data breach is particularly terrifying, given that the data of 143 million Americans was compromised, including Social Security numbers, driver's license information, birthdates and other sensitive data—and that the company waited six weeks to tell consumers. (By the way, 143 million people is 43 percent of the U.S. population!) Equifax is one of the three credit reporting agencies—including Experian and TransUnion—that supplies the information banks and credit companies use when they make decisions about mortgages, loans and credit cards. So they have plenty of sensitive data on everyone.
So should you be worried? Experts say the answer to that is "yes." Here's what you need to do right now.
You'll want to double check that the information they have is accurate—and that no one has opened new accounts in your name. (I've already heard of one person who had her birthdate recently changed by someone, and another who had unauthorized accounts set up in his name.) Start by going to Annual Credit Report, which was set up by the three credit reporting bureaus, to request your credit reports.
Equifax has offered free credit monitoring service to those impacted by their data breach, but the credit experts say that doesn't go far enough. "The best defense as of now is the credit freeze," says credit expert John Ulzheimer. "A freeze takes your credit reports out of circulation so fraudsters cannot open new accounts in your name because the lenders cannot gain access to your reports. No reports mean no scores which means no new credit." To do that, you'll need to go to each credit reporting agency's website—TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax—and request the freeze. On his Facebook page, Ulzheimer suggested placing a fraud alert in addition—that will require any creditor to obtain additional information to ensure you're who you say you are when you apply for credit. "If the fraudster gets lucky and applies with a lender where you already have a relationship then the freeze doesn't apply," Ulzheimer warns. "The alert would still require the lender to contact you to verify the authenticity of the application."
Experts say it's unclear as to whether children's Social Security numbers or birthdates could have been accessed in the data breach. "Children's Social Security numbers shouldn't be a part of this breach however, due to the sheer numbers, it is likely that there were some children's Social Security numbers involved in this breach," says identity theft expert Robert Siciliano. Kids' Social Security numbers are particularly valuable to identity thieves. "Children are at risk of identity theft because fraudsters know they are a clean slate, credit wise," says Ulzheimer. "And if they do victimize a child it's likely to go unnoticed for many years until the child gets to their age where they will legitimately apply for credit only to discover the activity in their name from the past."
Siciliano recommends applying for credit freezes for your children's Social Security numbers as well, though he admits it may be trickier to manage that. "Not all states have a deal with the credit bureaus allowing a credit freeze for children," he says. "A quick search can determine if all three credit bureaus allow this. Equifax is the only one that allows credit freezes for children across the board."