Dear Clients and Friends of Cornerstone:

We are sending our 2cents Newsletter out a little early this month in response to the recent data breach at Equifax.  Author Jean Chatzky’s well written article includes steps you can take immediately to protect yourself.  In addition to the three credit bureaus listed in the article, we suggest you add this fourth one to the list:  Innovis – https://www.innovis.com/personal/securityFreeze.

If you would like to refer back to any previous newsletters we have published, you can find them on our website. Please be sure to visit www.ccadvisors.com.

– Cornerstone Capital Advisors

How to Protect Yourself Post-Equifax Breach

Jean Chatzky
September 12, 2017

On Thursday, Equifax (one of the country’s three primary credit reporting agencies — the two others are TransUnion and Experian) revealed that hackers had gained access to sensitive information for up to 143 million U.S. adults — including Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers and more. Equifax set up an official website for consumers to check if they’d been affected and extended an offer for free credit monitoring, but the company’s response to the breach has been criticized as confusing and misleading.

The site directs consumers to enter their names and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers to find out whether they were potentially affected (Update: Equifax requires the last six digits of your Social Security number to check if you were affected.)  — but, as some Twitter users pointed out, even inputting a fake name and number will get you a “potentially affected” message. That means it’s likely Equifax doesn’t know who was affected. And it’s on us to protect ourselves.

So, what steps can you take to protect yourself? First, freeze your credit. (I did this and told all the members of my family to do the same.)

Here’s the deal: When this sort of personal information is stolen, the risk is that an identity thief will apply for credit, a mortgage, a job or a tax refund in your name. This is different — and far worse — than a fraudster simply getting ahold of your credit card and making a purchase or two. In that case, you can shut it down by getting a new credit card, and the credit card companies absorb the loss. Full-blown identity theft can be both hugely expensive and time-consuming to deal with.

Clearly, it’s becoming harder and harder to stop thieves from getting the information they need to apply for credit in your name. So, you need to try to stop them at the credit gates instead. The credit bureaus provide two means of protection. The first is called a fraud alert. Once in place, it tells potential creditors that you’re on the lookout for fraud and provides a phone number they can call to verify your identity. The caveat: It’s their choice to call or not. You can set up a 90-day fraud alert with all three credit bureaus just by calling one of them (and if you want to continue it, mark your calendar to call again before 90 days is up).

A fraud alert is not good enough. What you want instead is the stronger protection — a credit freeze. This essentially locks down the ability for anyone (including you) to take out credit in your name until you unfreeze your credit by unlocking it with a PIN number that either the bureau assigns you or you set yourself. (They are not perfect, as Ron Lieber of The New York Times reports, but they’re what we’ve got.) To set up a freeze, you need to contact to each bureau individually to put one in place. In some states, it’s free to get started (Equifax has waived all fees for 30 days, insufficient in my view). In others, it costs a few dollars. And it may cost the same every time you freeze and unfreeze. (It’s worth it.) The bureaus are dealing with a lot of traffic right now, so you may need to try a couple of times to get the system to work. Stick with it. Here’s where to go:

www.Equifax.com: Go to the bottom of the page and click on “place a security freeze on reports.”
www.Experian.com: Under the Credit Report Assistance tab, click on security freeze, then click “add a security freeze.”
www.TransUnion.com : You can try to do this online, but there’s some confusion about whether you need to set up an account. I found that it’s easiest to just go through the phone at 1-888-909-8872(Update: It asks you to enter your current mailing zip code, then press option 3 to get through the maze. After that, it’ll ask you to enter some personal information, like your Social Security number, to get started.)

Update:  A news update since our time of writing: Equifax has now made changes to its security offering for consumers (detailed at www.EquifaxSecurity2017.com). It says that customers who sign up for its free year of credit file monitoring and identity theft protection will not be automatically enrolled or charged when the year is up. Also, Equifax removed certain language from the “Terms of Use” on its security website to confirm that enrolling in the free credit file monitoring and identity theft protection “does not waive any rights to take legal action.”

The New York Times’ Your Money columnist, Ron Lieber, offered his updated thoughts on Equifax’s product in a new piece published today. It’s still a good idea to take it upon yourself to freeze your credit at all three bureaus. If you have any questions about keeping your information safe, please feel free to reach out at Jean@JeanChatzky.com, and I will try my best best to offer helpful links — or answer on an upcoming episode of my podcast, HerMoney.

The original article has been updated (in bold type) with subsequent material distributed by the author.