The details of the massive Equifax data breach are jaw-dropping.
The personal data of nearly 148 million Americans — in many cases including Social Security numbers — were exposed to criminals. Equifax waited weeks before saying anything. The company tried to charge consumers to lock down their data, before reversing course under withering criticism. Its website crashed; its phone representatives offered little more than sympathy.
Those are the sad and frustrating facts — and they make a lot of misinformation easier to believe. Some rumors we might want to be true, because they’d save us hassle.
But beware, these are just plain wrong:
1. Equifax is calling you
How great would it be for Equifax to call and offer to freeze your credit or sign you up for monitoring, saving you the trouble of trying to get through its phone menu or crashing website?
You may already know you have to give some identifying information to verify that it’s really you. Scammers know you know this, too.
The Federal Trade Commission is warning consumers not to fall for callers pretending to be Equifax. Don’t believe it even if caller ID says it’s Equifax, because scammers can “spoof” their numbers.
Rule of thumb: Don’t give information to someone who calls you. Initiate the call so you can be sure where your call is going. If you’ve already given your information to a suspected scammer, report it to the FTC.
2. If you freeze your credit, you can’t use your credit cards
Not being able to use credit cards would create major inconvenience and disruption in many lives. But freezing your credit is not like the old advice to literally freeze your credit card in a block of ice to avoid overspending. It affects your credit files, not your existing credit cards.
Freezing closes access to your credit files to those who don’t already have access. You and your current creditors can still access them. But scammers won’t be able to open new accounts in your name. Lenders won’t open new accounts if they cannot see your credit history.
Important note: A freeze stops new accounts — but it won’t keep anyone with your current credit card information from using it. Keep an eye on current accounts so you can spot fraudulent charges right away.
3. You need to freeze your credit only with Equifax
Yes, Equifax had the breach. But thieves may now have the key to your finances, and Equifax is just one of the doors that information can open. Freezing your credit at all three major bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — is the best way to keep anyone from accessing your credit.
Tip: If you can’t freeze your credit right now — for instance, you’re mortgage or car loan shopping — consider a fraud alert. For 90 days (longer if you are active-duty military or have been an identity theft victim), applications in your name receive extra scrutiny.
4. You are an identity theft victim
You’re not, at least not yet. Unless scammers are already using your information to open new accounts, the damage isn’t done. While taking the necessary steps to lock down your data is a time-consuming hassle, it is nothing compared with the frustration of unwinding new accounts set up in your name.
Be an informed consumer: The bureaus are pushing “credit locks” hard as an alternative to freezes. These may carry a fee, and still let the bureaus sell you onto lists for promotional offers from businesses. Read the terms and conditions before you choose any freeze, lock or credit monitoring service.
And now, 4 things you can believe
- With your personal data potentially released into the wild, the world is a different place. The threat requires vigilance to safeguard your finances.
- Freezing your credit is the single best thing you can do to prevent abuse of your data over the long term
- Checking your credit reports needs to become a habit. It can give you a heads-up when there’s a mistake, or worse, possible identity theft.
- This is forever.
Learn more about protecting your financial life
- How to freeze your credit, and why you might want to
- How to prevent credit card fraud
- Should you buy credit and identity theft monitoring?
Updated March 1, 2018.