On September 7, U.S. credit reporting agency Equifax reported that it had been hacked and more than 140 million people might have had their information stolen. The breach could have global implications: Equifax has stated that some UK and Canadian residents might be impacted as well.

What information was stolen?
Criminals stole names, social security numbers, birth dates, and addresses. In some instances, driver’s license numbers, credit card numbers, and other personal identifying information were accessed. The criminals had access to the Equifax data for almost two months before they were detected.

What can criminals do with this information?
Because the types of information stolen are the building blocks used to identify U.S. consumers, criminals could use this information to impersonate someone and commit identity theft, either now or in the future. A criminal with a counterfeit driver’s license, credit card, or prescription in your name could ruin your credit and reputation.

Criminals could also launch convincing phishing campaigns that target you by using your social security number or credit card information. Fake emails from credit agencies, banks, and credit card companies will encourage you to click on a link or call a number.

What can I do to protect myself?
Equifax has established a website for people to check if they were impacted. However, due to numerous complaints about inaccurate responses, you should assume that you were part of the breach.

To protect yourself against current and future threats to your finances and identity, follow these guidelines. (Note: Be aware that some services are changing daily as Equifax and the other credit reporting agencies respond to the breach. Read the fine print before signing up for any service.)

  • If you had an account with Equifax, change the password. You should never re-use the same password for multiple sites, but if you did, change those passwords as well.
  • Check your banking and credit card accounts regularly. Even if your accounts appear safe now, criminals may wait several months and then act when your guard is down.
  • Obtain a free copy of your credit report. You are allowed to request a free report annually from each of the three credit reporting agencies.
  • Sign up for credit monitoring from the credit reporting agencies, which charge a fee to watch your credit report and alert you to changes to the accounts listed on your credit report. Due to multiple complaints, Equifax has changed some conditions on their offer: now consumers signing up for credit monitoring do not waive any rights to take legal action, and the offer will not automatically renew in 12 months for a fee.
  • File a credit freeze, also known as a security freeze, with each credit reporting agency. This will block criminals from opening a credit card or other line of credit in your name. Equifax announced that freezing your credit with their service is now free.
  • Place a fraud alert on your credit file. To do this, you need only call one of the credit reporting agencies; the agency you call is then required to inform the other agencies of the alert. A fraud alert can prevent a criminal from opening a line of credit in your name, because the business must verify your identity before issuing the credit. Fraud alerts stay on your credit file for 90 days. After the 90 days have passed, either renew the alert or consider placing an extended fraud alert on your credit file.
  • File your taxes as soon as possible each year. This will prevent criminals from filing a false tax return in your name and stealing your refund.
  • Be alert for possible phishing emails. If a bank or credit card company requests account information or asks you to click a link, do not respond. Instead, sign into your account in a separate browser and confirm any requests.