Anxious About Equifax? Here's How To Protect Your Credit

Oct 24, 2017

Millions of Americans were only vaguely aware of the credit bureau Equifax until earlier this month, when the company revealed that the personal data of more than 147 million people was exposed in a massive data hack.

So what do you do if you're among those exposed?

John Pelletier, the director of the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College, joined Vermont Edition to lay out the steps you can take to protect yourself.

1. Take a deep breath. You're not alone. 

"If you're an adult who has credit, you're probably affected." Pelletier said. "What we lost is the crown jewels for data, for personally identifying information. Social security numbers, birth dates, addresses, even drives license numbers.

"Everything you need to commit identify theft was neatly packaged" in this breach. And he said it's not a short-term risk: information identifying you could be used to attempt identity theft or fraud in six weeks, six months, or six years.

Which brings us to step two.

2. Start by getting your credit baseline.

Equifax offers an online portal the company claims can determine if a given person was affected by the breach.

Some claim the portal is unreliable, and many chafe at the idea that the very social security numbers exposed in the breach are needed on the Equifax website (along with a last name) to check if you've been affected.

Some have even entered bogus data, like the name “Elmo” and the numbers “123456,” and say the site returns a message saying that information "may have been impacted" by the breach.

An alternative way to see if you've been affected is by pulling a comprehensive credit report from all three of the major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

You can get a free, federally-authorized credit report from all three agencies at AnnualCreditReport.com, which is authorized by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Other companies advertise free credit reports but many ultimately charge a fee. 

3. Consider a credit monitoring service.

Equifax is currently offering a free year of its credit monitoring service, TrustedID Premier.

Initially, the company required those signing up for the service to agree to a restrictive Terms of Service agreement, but no longer: "I was reluctant to do it, but now that [the agreement] is gone, you might as well sign up for it," Pelletier said.

The service offers access to your credit report, allows you to lock your Equifax credit report, and monitor other major credit bureaus as well. It also offers identity theft protection insurance for up to $1 million.

Other companies offer similar credit monitoring services.

4. Put fraud alerts on your credit with all three agencies.

A credit fraud alert is a slightly more flexible way to guard your credit, Pelletier said, but it's mostly been used for short-term protections in situations where someone loses a credit card or wallet.

A fraud alert lasts roughly 90 days, and is renewable for up to seven years, but you have to contact each credit bureau individually to initiate a fraud alert.

And to end the alerts or renew them after they expire, you have to call each bureau again.

5. Consider putting a credit freeze on yourself with all three bureaus.

Pelletier calls this the "nuclear option" for those concerned about their credit. A credit freeze requires contacting each of the three credit bureaus and paying a small fee to initiate a credit freeze. It won't be effective unless you freeze your credit with each agency, Pelletier emphasized. 

"No one can get your credit report," if you freeze it, Pelletier said. That will keep anyone, including you, from opening up a new credit card, getting a car loan or lease, or even have your credit checked by banks, insurance companies, or landlords for renters.

Freezing your credit will give you a long, complicated PIN number with each bureau. "Don't lose it," Pelletier stressed. Without it, he said unfreezing your credit could be extremely difficult, if not impossible.