The 2017 Equifax data breach affected nearly 148 million U.S. consumers, more than half the adults in the U.S. If you use a credit card, you were likely affected.
Credit bureaus such as Equifax are especially sensitive targets because they handle detailed financial records, and it’s nearly impossible for consumers to avoid credit reporting. The data accessed in the Equifax breach included names, birthdates, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and partial drivers’ license numbers.
1. Freeze your credit for the best protection
Credit freezes prevent stolen information from being used to open new accounts in your name by restricting access to your records. Without access to your credit history, most creditors won’t open a new account.
Freezing and unfreezing your credit at each of the three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — is now free to all consumers, thanks to changes to the Dodd-Frank law.
[A credit freeze] is the most extreme method, but it’s also the most effective.
Credit expert Barry Paperno agreed: “That’s the most extreme method, but it’s also the most effective.”
Because a freeze can prevent fraud, it’s better than a credit monitoring service, which only alerts you that fraud might have happened. It’s the difference between using a deadbolt to keep thieves out and a security camera to catch them after the fact.
To request a freeze:
- Equifax: 800-349-9960 or go online
- Experian: 888‑397‑3742 or go online
- TransUnion: 888-909-8872 or go online
Even with your credit frozen, you’ll still have access to your credit records and scores. Some credit card issuers and many personal finance websites, such as NerdWallet, offer free credit reports and scores. A big, unexplained change can alert you to potential fraud.
If you don’t want to freeze your credit, consider a credit lock.
All three bureaus offer an app that allows you to lock or unlock your credit with a quick swipe or online. The key difference between a credit freeze and a credit lock is it’s simpler to unlock a credit lock than it is to lift a credit freeze. You also may have less legal protection with a lock than with a freeze.
Equifax launched a free credit lock app in the wake of the breach.
2. Place a fraud alert if a freeze is too much
If you don’t want to lock out all creditors, you can place a renewable fraud alert on your credit. This tells potential creditors to verify your identity before issuing credit in your name.
3. Check all 3 credit reports
You’re entitled to at least one free credit report from each credit bureau every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport.com. If you haven’t accessed your credit reports within the past 12 months, do it now. If you’ve reviewed them recently, placing a fraud alert on your credit files allows renewed access.
Use your reports from the bureaus, and any free score and report services you have, to watch for:
- New accounts that you didn’t open.
- Credit inquiries that don’t match when you applied for credit.
- Balances that don’t match your statements.
4. Scrutinize credit statements
Freezing prevents the opening of new accounts but doesn’t stop fraudulent charges on an existing account. Take these steps to protect yourself:
- Even if you think your data wasn’t affected by this breach, stay vigilant by checking your credit card statements for charges you don’t recognize. If something looks fishy, dig further. Often there’s a phone number listed with the merchant name for the transaction.
- Consider signing up for text or email alerts about credit transactions. Many issuers let you set them for charges above a certain amount.
- If you see a charge you think isn’t yours, call your issuer right away to dispute it.