Identity theft has become a huge problem in recent years, and it's only likely to get bigger in the immediate future. The data breach that credit reporting bureau Equifax (NYSE:EFX) suffered from May through July exposed the vital personal information of as many as 143 million consumers. Inevitably, some of that information will make its way to identity thieves for criminal use, and it's essential that you take action to protect yourself. The following five things are especially important to do what you can to safeguard your data and avoid identity theft.
1. Visit the Equifax website and enroll in its program
Equifax has acknowledged the severity of the breach and has taken steps to respond. The company has set up a special page on its website to offer details about the cybersecurity incident as well as information that consumers can use to protect themselves. In particular, Equifax is offering free identity theft protection and credit file monitoring services through its TrustedID Premier program. The program requires a simple enrollment procedure, and consumers can enroll through Nov. 21.
Some critics have suggested that enrolling in Equifax's service doesn't go far enough, saying that one year of coverage won't be enough to protect against information that could be used against you far into the future. That's one reason why simply using the Equifax service isn't enough and why the additional steps below are also important.
2. Get copies of your credit report
Equifax is just one of three credit reporting bureaus from which you can get a free copy of your credit report once per year. Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion all make their credit reports available on the federal government-authorized website AnnualCreditReport.com. You can get copies of credit reports from all three bureaus at the same time, or you can space them out throughout the year by electing to take one now and see others later. It's unlikely that you'll see problems related to this most recent data breach just yet, but other issues might make themselves clear with a look at your report.
3. Monitor your credit accounts
It's also smart to keep an eye on your loan and credit card accounts to make sure there's no unusual activity. With fixed-term loans like mortgages and car loans, it's less likely that an identity thief could get more money from your lender. Credit cards, home equity lines of credit, and other accounts that have varying balances are another story. Most credit card companies and financial institutions offer website access that you can check as often as you want. Often, your first warning sign of problems will be an unauthorized charge that shows up on your online credit card statement.
4. Considering implementing a credit freeze
Identity thieves don't just limit themselves to existing credit accounts. They can also use your personal information to open new accounts in your name. A credit freeze, also known as a security freeze, stops lenders from gaining access to your credit report. As a result, they won't open new accounts, preventing identity thieves from doing so fraudulently. The downside is that if you want to open a new credit account, you'll have to go to the trouble of having the freeze temporarily lifted -- often at a cost. You'll need to contact all three credit reporting bureaus in order to do an effective credit freeze.
5. Consider filing your 2017 tax return as early as possible
Finally, one area many people don't think about identity theft is their tax returns. Criminals can use your personal information to file a false tax return, claiming a large refund that they then have sent directly to them. Often, it's only when you later file your true return that you'll find out that the IRS already has processed the fraudulent return. It's smart to file your 2017 tax return as soon after the late-January opening of tax season as possible in order to beat thieves to the punch.
The Equifax data breach is a disaster in the fight against identity theft, but you're not defenseless. By following this five-step plan, you can do your best to protect yourself and your personal information going forward.