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Recently, Equifax, one of the major credit reporting bureaus, announced that this past July the credit report information of approximately 143 million consumers across North America was compromised by hackers. Among the stolen information were details like Social Insurance Numbers (known as Social Security Numbers in the U.S.), addresses and other personal details (names, birth dates, driver’s license numbers, etc.), as well as the credit card numbers of 209,000 consumers. While the breach has mainly affected Equifax’s U.S. clients, many people in Canada and the parts of Great Britain have also fallen victim. Equifax is mailing notices to the 209,000 consumers with leaked credit card information and additional notices to 182,000 people whose credit dispute files (which also contain personal information) were stolen.
Now, if you are worried about the Equifax breach and whether your information was compromised, the bureau has established a new website, where you can visit to see if your profile is one that was affected during the attack. However, at this time, it seems like this website will only give you an automated response and not necessarily the accurate information pertaining to your credit report. So, for more information, you can also call 866-447-7559.
Unfortunately, if you’re an Equifax consumer, even if you did not receive a letter, you may still have been affected. Because of this, it’s extremely important, now more than ever, to check your credit report and take the proper measures towards protecting your information. In some of our previous articles, we’ve discussed just what could happen to your finances if an identity thief gets ahold of your personal or banking information. Your Social Insurance Number is a particularly valuable asset to a criminal because it’s one of the pieces of identification required when you’re applying for new credit. With your address and SIN, an identity thief can apply for credit in your name. A stolen credit card number is another attractive item that a thief can use to wreak havoc on your finances.
In the article below, we’ve included a few security measures that you can take in order to keep your credit information safe from this breach. We’re not trying to make you paranoid, but it’s always better to air on the safe side, especially when it comes to your identity and financial health. Even if you’re lucky enough that your personal information remains safe, these are still security steps that you can consider in the future.
Read this for more information on how to recognize a case of identity theft and how to protect yourself against one.
Update Your Credit Account Login Information
The first, most basic step that you can take towards protecting your credit information, whether you were affected by the breach or not, is to modify the login information for your individual credit accounts. For whatever accounts you have currently active, you can start by changing your username and password. While it’s not a foolproof method of thwarting identity thieves, it provides you with some protection.
Keep an Eye on Your Credit Accounts
While it’s good to maintain a record of your all your credit transactions anyway, it’s best to also keep a watchful eye on your credit-related accounts, your credit card purchases in particular. If and when an identity thief steals your information, they’ll likely attempt to use it or sell it as quickly as possible to avoid detection. For that reason, you should monitor your own finances carefully, so that you can report any suspicious activity to your lenders and credit card companies, then cancel your accounts if necessary.
Beware of “Phishing”
Another unfortunate result of the Equifax breach? Not only its consumers will have been affected. Information from retailers where consumers made transactions, as well as the credit bureau itself, has also been taken and the criminals responsible know how to use that to their advantage. Always keep in mind that hackers and identity thieves can be clever, to say the least. It’s very important to be wary of any notices, especially e-mails, that you may receive following the breach, claiming to be from the affected companies and retailers. These so-called “warnings” are just another way of baiting consumers into forking over their personal information, so approach any that you receive with extreme caution. Remember, Equifax already has your information on file, they do not need you to fill out anything else unless it’s for an additional, optional service that they offer. There’s almost no reason they would ever send you an email or call you over the phone to request more personal or banking information. If you are sent an email by someone claiming to be Equifax or an associated retailer, delete it immediately without even opening it. If you get a phone call in the same fashion, hang up right away.
Consider Credit Monitoring
As we’ve also mentioned in some of our previous articles, both of Canada’s credit bureaus, Equifax and TransUnion (Experian is a third bureau in the United States) do offer a credit monitoring service for a monthly fee. While this fee might not necessarily be convenient or cheap, it’s a good way to keep track of your credit information. With this optional service, not only are customers able to review their credit reports whenever they want, but they’ll also receive notifications when applications and accounts for new credit are opened in their name. This, in turn, makes it easier for customers to spot cases of identity theft. However, credit monitoring does not give you 100% protection against fraud or identity theft. What it does do is alert you when new credit accounts are opened under your name, which gives you time to act. So, be aware of this before you sign up for credit monitoring.
Place a Fraud Alert on Your Credit Report
If Equifax has legitimately notified you that your credit information has been compromised, or if you yourself have discovered this to be true, you can contact Equifax and have them place a “fraud alert” on your credit report. This is a free service and, as per your request, Equifax should be able to contact TransUnion and have them also put a fraud alert on your profile. The alert will then stay on your report for 90 days. Once an alert has been placed on your report, any lender that you apply with will be required to confirm your identity with the credit bureaus before an account can be opened in your name. This will make it harder for identity thieves to use your information to access new credit.
Consider Freezing Your Credit Files
Another, more serious security measure that you can take is to “freeze” your credit report. Essentially, freezing your report means that you’ll be setting strict limitations as to who is permitted to view your profile. Depending on where you live in Canada, freezing your report can cost a small fee, usually $5-10. Once frozen, no new lenders, mortgage brokers, banks, landlords, etc. will be able to access your credit report. Only you, government agencies, your existing lenders, and the bureaus themselves will be permitted to access your report and no one will be able to apply for new credit using your name until the freeze is lifted or “thawed”. From that point on, if an identity thief applies for new credit from an existing lender or a new one, that lender will pull your credit report, find it frozen and the thief’s access will be denied.
Now, we call this a more serious measure for one key reason. After your file is frozen, by “no one” being allowed to apply for new credit in your name, we mean no one, not even you. In order to apply for additional credit, perhaps a new credit card or to refinance your mortgage, you’ll need to contact Equifax/TransUnion again and request that the freeze be lifted temporarily. Every time you request a thaw, then have your report re-frozen, you will be charged a fee, so think about that before you decide to go through with it. Once requested, the freeze should be lifted within a few business days. You can then apply for your new credit and after you gain the lender’s approval, you can request another freeze. After your file is frozen, you will be given a PIN (Personal Identification Number), so that only you can request a thaw. Do not lose this number, as obtaining a new one will require that you confirm your identity, which in itself can be another way for identity thieves to obtain your personal information through a phishing email or other means.
Click here to find out how to obtain a free yearly copy of your credit report.
Review Your Credit Report Regularly!
All this being said, it is possible that you weren’t affected at all by the Equifax data breach, the thought of which might cause you to let down your guard. Trust us, letting down your guard is a mistake. It’s very important, whether you’re a victim of the breach or not, to review your credit report at least once per year, more if you don’t mind paying for it. By reviewing your report, you can not only look for suspicious activity involving your credit accounts, but you can also dispute any inaccuracies that could cause your credit score to drop. Stay vigilant, and do not underestimate the way that identity thieves and fraudsters commit their crimes.
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