How to Protect Your Credit: 8 Steps

EquifaxThe recent data breach at Equifax seems to have brought to the forefront our new reality. A reality where hacks, data breaches and stolen Social Security numbers are going to be commonplace at least until we come up with a better system for personal identification and financial transactions. If this is true, then it’s important for all of us, whether we were potentially affected by the recent breach or not, to make personal credit monitoring a long-term habit.

Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet that can make us impervious to the activities of financial fraudsters but there are certainly things we can do to make ourselves much less vulnerable. Here’s a list of what we at Beacon are considering…

  • If you’d like to know if you have been potentially affected by the breach at Equifax you can go to www.equifaxsecurity2017.com and enter your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number. I must say that there have been some questions on how accurate this is – people have entered random names and numbers and been told they were affected by the data breach. I have completed this process and it appears that my entire family has been potentially affected – including my two kids who under 4 years old!
  • Regardless of whether you have been potentially affected, Equifax is giving all of us the opportunity to sign up for a free year of their TrustedID Premier credit monitoring system. Initially it appeared that by signing up for this service you waved your right to join a class action lawsuit against the company. Equifax has since clarified this and updated their website to read “In response to consumer inquiries, we have made it clear that the arbitration clause and class action waiver included in the Equifax and TrustedID Premier terms of use does not apply to this cybersecurity incident.” I have started this process but have been put on a wait list, presumably because of high volume. I plan to wait to complete my enrollment in this service until we know more about it. Please note, however, that the deadline to sign up is Tuesday, November 21, 2017. Even if you do decide to sign up, it’s important to remember that the Equifax service only lasts for 1 year while your potentially compromised financial data will be out there permanently.
  • In addition to TrustedID Premier there are multitude of other credit monitoring services available. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on whether credit monitoring services are worth the money. Those with something to gain seem to think they are wonderful while others are more skeptical. If you’re the type of person that will implement the other items on this list, then perhaps you can forgo the cost of purchasing a credit monitoring. On the other hand, if you know you probably won’t implement these items or if it helps you sleep better at night perhaps it’s worth it.
  • Initiate a credit freeze. A credit freeze allows you to seal your credit reports which makes it almost impossible for someone to fraudulently use your personal information to establish new credit. No creditor will open a new account for you or someone pretending to be you without access to your credit reports. You receive a personal identification number (PIN) that allows you to “thaw” your credit should you need to open a new credit card, refinance or buy a home, etc. Should you decide to go this route, you need to freeze your credit with all three credit bureaus. Clark Howard posted this very helpful guide for initiating a credit freeze. I plan to freeze my family’s credit soon.
  • Regularly check your credit reports at annualcreditreport.com. You’re entitled to get a free copy of your Experian, TransUnion and Equifax reports once every 12 months. I usually pull one of my three reports every four months and I plan to continue to follow this pattern. In addition, most large banks and a few free online resources, like www.creditkarma.com or www.mint.com , now offer a very good big picture view of your credit score and can help you catch any noticeable changes.
  • Keep a close eye on your bank accounts, checking and credit card transactions, and other financial information. A credit freeze does not prevent a thief from making purchases with your existing credit accounts so it’s important to stay alert. You don’t need to check your accounts every day but doing so regularly is just a good thing to do. However, please don’t confuse this with checking your 401(k) daily to see what the stock market has done to your balance. This can lead to unhealthy outcomes so be smart and find a system that works.
  • Be especially alert for phishing scams (emails attempting to direct you to enter personal information on fake websites) and fraudulent phone calls. Do not, under any circumstance, give out any personal information over the phone or via email. Even if the caller says they are with the IRS or Equifax.
  • Consider filing your taxes early — It’s possible that a scammer could use a stolen Social Security number to file a fraudulent tax return in pursuit of a refund. If you’ve already filed it may be harder for them to do so. You’ll still need to wait until you’ve received all your W2s, 1099s and other tax forms but perhaps waiting to file no longer offers as much appeal as it once did – even if you end up owing money!

As you can imagine, we’ve received a large amount of feedback and questions on this topic. One of the things we’ve heard and experienced is that some of the websites mentioned in this brief have been slow or even crashed during use due to the high volumes of traffic. Be persistent. We will continue to follow the Equifax story as it unfolds and let you know if any of our recommendations need to be updated. As always, please let us know if you have any questions. We’re here to help.

Geoff Hall
[email protected]

My wife, Crystal, and I have been married for eight years and have two kids, Cooper (6) and Rhodes (4.) When I’m not spending time with them you might find me downtown serving at our church, pushing my limits during a mountain bike ride or having coffee with a friend in the Five Points area. I've been practicing wealth management for 24 years and I'm thankful for the privilege of shepherding my family of clients through the ups and down of the markets and of life for that matter.