Amazing. A hundred and forty-three million people get all their private financial information stolen from Equifax, an organization that snoops into your business and accrues data about you without your permission — without encrypting said data. Adding to this latest entry in the Annals of the Floored and Flabbergasted, Equifax executives knew what was coming down the pike, so sold their stock in the company before the news hit the street.
So. If your personal information hasn’t already been stolen, chances are pretty good it’s gone now: 143 million is one in two Americans who may be a victim of this latest heist. What can you do?
You’re not helpless, interestingly enough: there are several strategies that will help protect against the effects of identity theft.
• Freeze your credit bureau accounts. You have to call all three credit bureaus to have each one apply a freeze. It ensures that no one — including you — can set up a new bank account, credit card, mortgage, or the like without your knowing about it.
This is probably the best move you can make. It does add some hassle to your life. Any time you want to take out a loan or open a new bank account, you have to un-freeze at least one account — usually Experian. This is made slightly less inconvenient by the fact that you can limit the period that it’s unfrozen, having it refreeze after x number of days. Which sounds good until you realize that you have no way of getting the people your dealing with off the dime: invariably, they don’t get around to asking for a credit report until after the un-frozen period ends.
• Monitor your credit card and bank account statements. You should be doing this anyway, but now that’s even more true. Check each statement promptly after it arrives for any transactions you don’t recognize, and if you suspect fraud, call the card issuer or bank immediately.
• Set up fraud monitoring on your accounts. Equifax proposes to give its victims a year of free fraud monitoring — conveniently, through its own subsidiary.
This is problematic. First, one year of monitoring ain’t much. If bad guys have your Social Security number, you don’t have a year-long problem: your problem is going to last the rest of your life. After that year, you’re going to have to pay for the privilege. And second, if you sign up for the service offered by Equifax, you have to give up your right to sue the bastards — or to be part of a class action suit.
There is some wrong-doing here: they knew about this on July 29, plenty of time for the higher-ups to unload stock. We proles didn’t learn that our personal data was on the way to the Dark Web until yesterday. So no: you do not want to forego your right to sue, and no: you do not want to agree to accept arbitration.
Paid identity fraud monitoring is probably unnecessary. You can accomplish the same thing for free or for very little by freezing your credit bureau accounts, keeping a sharp eye on your financial statements, and also checking the EOB (explanation of benefits) statements that come from your health insurer for any treatments you didn’t receive.
• For free, you can monitor your credit reports. By law, credit bureaus are required to give you one free credit report a year. Since three credit bureaus dominate the privacy-invasion landscape, you can arrange to stagger requests for reports, so that one comes in every four months, giving you a recurring view of activities reported to the credit bureaus.
The federal government has a free identity theft recovery program for people who believe they’ve been victimized. When you review the complicated, time-consuming steps required to respond to an attack on your identity, you realize exactly how serious this vast breach is. It is, in a word, a fiasco.