How to Avoid Identity Theft after the Massive Equifax Data Breach

Can you guess the world's fastest growing cyber-crime?

Each year nearly 15 million Americans have their identities stolen or used fraudulently in one form or another and in 2014, more than 17 million people were the victims of identity theft. In all, losses soar into the billions.

Identity theft is a serious issue which should be handled with the utmost importance. In the wake of the 2017 Equifax data breach—which endangered millions of Americans—it is critical you are aware of how to keep your identity and personal information protected.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the preventative steps you can take against identity theft, and what you should do if you believe your personal information has been stolen. We’ll also touch upon identity theft protection services and whether you might need one. We aim to equip you with the knowledge and resources needed to keep you and your family safe.

The Equifax Breach: How Millions of Americans Personal Details were Hacked

On September 7, Equifax, one of the nation’s three largest credit bureaus, said a data breach at the company may hay have affected a reported 143 million US-based users this year. Nearly half of the American population may have been victims of a hack as credit card numbers, birthdates, addresses, and Social Security numbers were accessed.

It is believed that hackers exploited a potential vulnerability in Equifax’s website to gain unauthorized access to the private data of millions of Americans. Armed with such personal information, criminals can open financial accounts, apply for credit cards, get medical care, and even apply for a job all in your name.

Equifax states it’s working with law enforcement and an independent cybersecurity firm to investigate the massive data breach and work toward assisting the millions of possible victims of identity theft.

Unfortunately, at the moment, it is nearly impossible to verify whether you’ve been impacted, as many people have reported on the shady nature of the dedicated website Equifax set up to help possible victims. Some even call it a phishing website.

Regardless of whether you believe your identity has been stolen—or may be in danger of being stolen—it’s a solid idea to take measures to keep yourself protected.

What is Identity Theft?

Identity theft is when a criminal steals numbers, documents or online data that contains private identifying information. Usually, this information is used to open credit accounts, open lines of customer credit, or commit other crimes under your identity.

At the first sign of suspicious activity, some companies will send you an identity fraud alert and allow you to issue a credit freeze which disallows lenders from accessing your credit until the issue is further explored.

A credit freeze also stops an identity thief from opening accounts under your FICO score. Enrolling with a competent identity protection service can significantly mitigate damage in the event a customer credit account is stolen. What's more, many of the best-rated identity companies offer additional services to even improve your current economic standing.

The Federal Trade Commission Consumer Information page has a variety of resources regarding identity theft. This Federal Trade Commission page contains information on recovering from identity theft, handling a data breach, and protecting your identity. There, you can also find free resources on how to prevent identity theft, as well as resources for law enforcement, businesses, and attorneys and advocates.

Do You Need Identity Theft Protection?

If you've never had issues with identity theft, or if you've never had errors on your credit report, you might feel it's unnecessary to sign up for identity theft protection. But given how identity theft affects millions each year, you can't afford to take chances with your credit history.

We need to safeguard our credit and identity by any means necessary. Even if you don't have immediate plans to buy a house or a car, you never know when you'll need to apply for financing. And if you don't monitor your credit, there could be information on your reports that prevents qualifying for a loan.

Thieves know how to get hold of information to steal your identity. In fact, many things you do on a daily basis can compromise your personal information. This includes shopping online, carrying sensitive information in your wallet, using public Wi-Fi, receiving mail in an unlocked box, or visiting an ATM.

Identity theft protection is an affordable, hassle-free way to keep tabs on your credit. Signing up doesn't mean you're obsessed with your credit. Instead, you're acknowledging that identity theft can happen to anyone, and you're hoping to be one less victim. Here's a look at three reasons to sign up for protection.

Receive Fraud Alerts

Sign up for a credit monitor service and you'll receive alerts whenever a company checks your credit, a new account opens in your name, or other, new activity appears on your reports. Even if you diligently check your credit reports each year, a credit monitoring service protects your credit in-between these routine checks. Notifications arrive via email, at which time you can determine whether it's an authorized activity. If not, file a dispute and begin an investigation.

Gain Access to Your Credit Report and Score

Identity theft protection also gives you free access to your credit reports. You can check your credit history for accuracy, and see what creditors are saying about you. You might receive a free credit report every month, quarter or year, depending on the service and your package.

You'll Save Money in the Long Run

Some victims of identity theft lose less than $100, whereas others are cheated out of tens of thousands. But regardless of whether an identity thief walks away with a little or a lot, no one want's to be a victim. According to Identity Guard, "$4,841 is the average amount stolen from an identity theft victim." There's a monthly subscription fee for credit monitoring, which might be as low as $9.99/month. It's a small price to pay for reliable protection. And if truth be told, you might save a ton in the long run by simply having this service.

Identity theft protection safeguards your FICO score, and with a higher credit rating, you can score lower interest rates on loans. Additionally, identity theft protection service providers give customers up to $1 million of the best identity theft insurance for related expenses, such as lost wages, travel expenses, legal costs, etc. However, you will want long-term care, so be sure to renew your subscription as often as possible. Long-term care ensures that your information and finances remain safe.

How Can My Identity be Stolen?

Identity thieves operate in several different ways and they can steal your identity via physical theft or by hacking your accounts. The simplest method is to steal a wallet, a briefcase or a purse to find documents, credit cards or account information. They might also look through trash bins to find documents that should have been shredded or otherwise destroyed. Another method of physical theft is looking in unlocked mailboxes for credit card information or bank notices.

However, with today's level of technology, identity thieves are employing much more sophisticated methods. They may hack accounts, databases and any other online source of information with weak security. They might not need to take your information at all; they might just trick you into giving it to them. They can impersonate a bank employee, a credit card company representative or a debt collector in order to trick you into giving the wrong person some sensitive information.

They can also set up false web pages known as phishing sites, which impersonate official websites that you would enter in specific information. Typically the sites URL will have a string of extra numbers and letters of nonsense that wouldn't normally be included.

What to do if Your Identity has been Stolen

It's important to know how to report identity theft when there is a problem with your report.

The Federal Trade Commission recommends first requesting a manual inspection of your child's credit reports from all three credit reporting bureaus. This type of search allows the agencies to look in detail at both the main file (information related to the SS number in question paired with the correct name and birth date), as well as sub-files that may have been created via a synthetic identity. These sub-files will only involve the SS number but may be connected with false information like a fake name.

If the credit files reveal suspicious activity, you should follow these steps:

  1. Record dates, times, and names of everyone you speak to and the information you received or action that is supposed to occur.
  2. Ask the credit reporting agencies to remove all fraudulent information associated with your child's name and SSN - this includes open accounts, collections, and inquiries.
  3. Request that the reporting bureaus put a fraud alert on the file. Contacting one of the agencies is sufficient (Experian, TransUnion, or Equifax) - they will contact the other two.
  4. Contact all companies involved - this includes any business from whom the thief sought or gained credit, goods, or services. Let them know that the accounts are fraudulent.
  5. File an identity theft report with the FTC.
  6. Look into filing a credit freeze (which I will cover next).
  7. File a police report.

Federal law entitles you to three free credit reports per year - one from each credit bureau, according to the FTC.

However, you may want to enlist help from a professional service when it comes to drawing up all the paperwork to submit by mail or fax in order to submit an extensive fraud alert.

How can you protect yourself from identity theft?

  • Update passwords on a regular basis.
  • Avoid easy-to-guess passwords, make strong passwords.
  • Protect your computer and mobile device.
  • Keep financial and personal documents secure, whether digital or paper.
  • Check your credit report annually with the three major credit reporting bureaus.
  • Beware of phishing and scam emails.
  • Don't share sensitive information.

How ID Theft Protection Services work

A large portion of fraud monitoring is automated. The identity protection service should conduct searches of dangerous websites to ensure that your information is not being traded illegally. If the automated system does find instances of fraud, you should be alerted.

Credit card fraud (not saying debit card fraud should go ignored) is one of the most popular forms of fraud where criminals attempt to use lost or stolen credit cards, steal important information from your mailbox or trash, or access your personal records in order to open or use credit in your name. It's important to obtain detailed credit reports from the main credit bureaus so you can thoroughly review your accounts for any signs of fraudulent activity.

Other types of fraud include medical and insurance fraud. Having identity theft insurance monitoring on the lookout for fraudulent activity in your name along with access to efficient and professional restoration systems around the clock will offer solutions to damaged caused by thieves if your credit is stolen.

To protect your information, you need monitoring, but you also need another couple layers of protection: anti-virus software and anti-keylogging software, which will help prevent identity theft.

Keeping Sensitive Information Protected is Paramount

Check thoroughly that the service monitors the use of your Social Security, credit card number, debit card number, bank accounts, telephone, email, name, driver license number info, and other information that could be used to steal your identity.

Some services also monitor other forms of information like public records, internet information connected to you, payday loans in your name and even sex offenders in your area.

When you think about all the sensitive information you share in confidence each day that could potentially become misused, it can be overwhelming. This is why it's advantageous to enlist a professional to protect all of your information and provide you with additional services and software protection so you can have peace-of-mind and little work to do on your end.