The Equifax Breach: Why it’s big, and how to stay safe.


Yesterday, Equifax admitted publicly that they were breached, and that personal information was exposed for 143,000,000 U.S. Consumers.  While this is not the largest data breach in number of records exposed, it is arguably the worst data breach ever due to the type of data that criminals accessed.  Whether or not you believe that your information was exposed there are steps you can take to protect yourself.

Why This Breach is Historic

This breach involved personal information, not just credit card numbers.  If a criminal gets hold of your credit card information you can cancel the card, and if they are able to make any charges you can dispute those with the credit card company.  It’s slightly worse if a criminal gets your debit card information. In that case you can get a new card, but you may have to fight with the bank to get your cash back into your bank account.

In this breach identity information was stolen.  If a criminal gets hold of your identity information it’s much harder for you to change that, and the criminal can continue to use it for years.  Even if you are able to change your social security number (which may require proof of criminal activity) many companies will continue to have your previous number, and may grant access to your information based on that.

According to the information available today criminals gained access to names, social security numbers, addresses, and other information for more than one hundred million people in the U.S.  In some, or perhaps most, of these cases the people who are now at risk never had any dealings directly with Equifax.  Even so, the failure of Equifax to protect consumers’ data now costs time and money of millions of people.  Time and money which will be required to protect people and/or to react to criminal activity committed in their name.

Even worse is the fact that Equifax has been breached before!

And they’re not alone.  Experian has been in the news for its own share of issues.

Because of the number of people who are now subject to identity theft, this is quite possibly the worst data breach in history.

 

What You Can Do

Even if you haven’t been breached yet, there are at least two things you can do to protect yourself and to prevent criminals from using your information.  Note: option 1 is more expensive and is optional if you complete all of option 2; however option 1 is the easiest over the long term.

Option 1: Sign up for credit monitoring.  You may choose to do this via Equifax for free, or you may choose not to place your trust in the company that has lost control of consumer data 5 times in 5 years.  There are alternatives.  (e.g. Lifelock, Transunion, Fast3CreditScores, Experian Identity Works, Privacy Guard ) Numerous sites are available for evaluating these.

  • Pro:
    • You will receive alerts when anyone attempts to open a new credit account in your name.
    • Some of these credit monitoring companies will help you if your identity is compromised.  Choose carefully.
  • Con:
    • This is more expensive than the $15 per year for a freeze. (assuming you only apply for one new credit account per year)

 

Option 2: Contact each of the four consumer credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, Innovis, Trans Union), and request a Credit Freeze.  This may cost up to $15 per bureau, depending on your state of residency.

  • Pro:
    • If a criminal attempts to open a credit account in your name they will be refused.
  • Con:
    • When you wish to open a new credit account you will have to do the following.
      • Ask the company from which you are requesting credit to tell you which credit bureau they use,  Equifax, Experian, Innovis, or Trans Union.
      • Contact that credit bureau and release the freeze.
      • Apply for the new credit account or loan.
      • Contact that credit bureau and request the freeze again – this will likely cost an additional $15.  If you do this less than once per season then this is much less than you will likely pay for credit monitoring.  It is of course less convenient.

Conclusion

Because of the large number of identities stolen (143,000,000) this is likely the worst data breach ever.  Whether or not your personal information was breached in this incident, there are steps you can take to prevent criminals from using your identity to commit crimes.

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