How Do I Protect Myself from Credit Hackers

Last week’s news that credit giant Equifax’s systems were hacked in July has plenty of us on edge about our personal data. If you haven’t seen the story, yet, you can find out more here. In short, hackers illegally accessed the personal information of 143 million consumers – that means names, social security numbers, dates of birth, driver’s license numbers—essentially, all of the information you spend your life trying to keep private. Farhad Manjoo’s New York Times article, Seriously, Equifax? This Is a Breach No One Should Get Away With, expresses the outrage of millions of Americans who gave their data to this company indirectly (and involuntarily) only to find that no one is keeping watch over what Equifax and other credit companies actually do with that data.

In addition to some perfectly justifiable venting, you might want to take some simple steps to help protect yourself from some of the hacks, frauds and data leaks. So, here are my suggestions:

1.      Request a credit (Security) freeze. Call each of the big three credit companies listed below and ask them to freeze your credit. Ironically, you will need to turn over your personal information to get the freeze put in place, but it’s more than likely they have all of that anyway. The freeze means that no one can pull your credit score until you temporarily or permanently lift the freeze for them. If you do go to buy a new car, allow a credit check for a job or apartment, or apply for a new credit card, ask which of the companies the vendor will be checking. You can use a PIN that the credit company gives you to log on and temporarily lift the freeze. Oh, and one more thing – the credit companies will charge you $5 or $10 to lift your credit freeze, so that they can sell your data. Note to Congress: you might want to have a look at this while you are at it.

2.      Put a fraud alert in place. If you don’t want to freeze your report a fraud alert forces creditors to verify your identity before pulling your credit. An initial fraud alert lasts only 90 days, at which time you will need to renew it. You (hopefully) took this step if you ever had a wallet or computer stolen that contained personal identification. An extended alert, generally used if you’ve already been the victim of identity theft, lasts seven years, and active military members can apply for a 1-year alert. Placing a fraud alert on your credit report can slow down a credit application process – but, then, that’s the point.

3.      Check your statements monthly. Credit freezes and fraud alerts make it harder for someone to check your credit information or open a new account in your name. But they don’t do anything to keep your existing accounts safe. We all know how painfully dull it is to read through account statements – but do it anyway. A quick scan of your bank account and credit card transactions can catch an unauthorized purchase and probably get you your money back.

To put a credit freeze or alert on your credit reports, call each of the three numbers below.

Equifax: 1-800-349-9960

Experian: 1-888-397-3742

TransUnion: 1-888-909-8872

And then call Congress. Just ask anyone logging on to Equifax’s site this week -- it’s about time we took consumer privacy more seriously.

For more information, see the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Information site: