A little over a year ago — on Sept. 7, 2017, to be exact — consumer credit reporting giant Equifax revealed its credit report databases had been breached by hackers for several months before being discovered. The personal information of more than 143 million people, nearly all of them in the U.S., was exposed. That number grew to nearly 148 million, according to a final report by the company in March of this year.
The kicker? The company waited six weeks to disclose the data breach, allowing more than ample time for the hackers to inflict untold damages. The compromised records varied, from credit cards, driver’s licenses and phone numbers, to dates of birt, and email addresses. But, according to NBC News, probably the most stunning aspect of the breach was that more than 99 percent of affected consumers had their Social Security numbers exposed!
Over the past year, that alarming news has faded from the headlines, and maybe your vigilance regarding your credit report has too. Even if you haven’t been a victim of credit-related fraud, you should assume that most of your sensitive information is still very much available to lots of bad people. When they gain access to data, thieves commonly wait awhile to apply for credit cards or mortgages or even access to your bank and other financial accounts.
At the time, it was recommended that you perform a credit freeze with each of the three major credit reporting firms, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Credit freezes restrict access to your credit file, making it harder for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. But unfortunately, at the time, implementing the blocks to your credit report usually cost between $3 and $10 for each of the reporting agencies.
But thanks to a new federal law that took effect Sept. 21 of this year, you now can get free credit freezes. You can also get a free freeze for your children who are under 16. If you’re someone’s guardian, conservator or have a valid power of attorney, you can also get a free freeze for that person.
So how do you do that? You must contact one of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies. The one you contact must then notify the other two. You can contact them in two ways: online or by phone. Below are the contact online addresses and telephone numbers for each agency:
• Equifax: www.eqifax.com/personal/credit-report-services or by phone by calling 800-349-9960.
• Experian: experian.com/help or by calling 888-397-3742.
• TransUnion: transunion.com/credit-help or by calling 888-909-8872.
Your freeze must be placed or lifted within one day if requested either online or by phone. If requested by mail, the freeze must be placed or lifted within three business days. Keep in mind if you put a freeze on your credit report, you must request that it be lifted if you are applying for credit. You can lift the freeze temporarily without incurring a fee.
Another feature of the new federal law is the extension of the time a fraud alert will be in effect. A fraud alert tells businesses that check your credit they should check with you before opening a new account. Prior to the new law, fraud alerts were good for only 90 days. Now a fraud alert will last one year. Like the credit freeze, fraud alerts will still be free, and identity theft victims can still get an extended fraud alert for seven years.
Whether it’s Eqifax, Uber or Target, it seems like every day we hear of another massive data breach. As consumers we should devote more time to check our credit reports, transaction statements and protecting our accounts.
Cheryl Parson is president of the Better Business bureau serving West Central Ohio. The BBB may be found on the Internet at www.lima.bbb.org.