I’ve spent most of my life in Florida, where hurricanes are a sad fact of life. Here’s what few non-Floridians know: After a hurricane, the weather is beautiful. The skies are clear, and the temperature is perfect.
It’s often that way in the financial world where I’ve spent more than two decades as a CPA and financial counselor. Consider the massive Equifax data breach, which was first revealed a year ago this month.
While no one is sure how much data hackers made off with, 146 million Americans had their personal information exposed. When you consider there were only 323 million Americans in the entire country, that’s a record-setting data breach.
The winds pick up
What made it even more startling is that Equifax is one of the Big Three credit bureaus. Along with Experian and TransUnion, they collect details on nearly every debt you ring up, from credit card balances to mortgages. This information determines your credit score.
If any business should be air-tight with your personal data, it’s this one. Even worse, at the time of the breach, Equifax was selling a service called the Complete Premier Plan. For $19.95 a month, it promised to “Help monitor your credit and Social Security Number” — for, you know, hackers trying to steal that precious information.
After the storm
Even worse, the best way for those 146 million Americans to protect themselves wasn’t free. It’s called a credit freeze. Depending on where you lived, it could cost up to $30. Now Congress has stepped in and made them free for everyone.
What’s a credit freeze? It allows you to tell those Big Three credit bureaus to stop releasing your information to new lenders. In practical terms, this means no one can open a new credit card or take out a car loan in your name.
That’s how identity thieves make money from your personal data. They open up new lines of credit, spend all of it, and disappear in the night. Imagine finding out your name is suddenly on a dozen maxed-out credit cards. Sadly, like hurricanes, this disaster strikes millions.
After Equifax was hacked, it sheepishly offered free credit freezes. Congress, which has a reputation for doing little, was motivated by this huge crime to do something real and useful. It passed a law that all three credit bureaus, not just Equifax, must offer free credit freezes whenever consumers want them.
Now it’s nice out there
So how do you set up a credit freeze? It’s easy…
- Go to each of the three credit bureaus’ freeze pages: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
- You’ll get a PIN that lets you remove the freeze whenever you want.
Keep in mind, the freeze affects you, too. You can go to those three pages and, using your PIN, grant a creditor “one-time access” to your file. This allows you to sign up for a new credit card or mortgage or any other line of credit you seek.
Preparing for the next storm
Credit freezes are very similar to boarding up the windows as a hurricane approaches. It’s not something you do all the time. You probably don’t want to live your life under a credit freeze.
Just like living in hurricane country, you want to monitor the weather. You should constantly scan your credit reports, looking for errors and unusual activity. You can order your report from each of the three bureaus once a year for free. Just go to annualcreditreport.com.
I recommend you pull one report every four months, so you get the latest look at your personal data. I also suggest you look into an identity theft protection service. There are many out there. I like Debt.com’s Identity Theft Protection because it’s free for the first 30 days, and if you don’t like it or don’t think it’s necessary, you can easily cancel.
By the way, the new credit freeze goes into effect Sept. 21. The middle of hurricane season.
Read more: How to Place a Credit Freeze.
Originally published at www.debt.com on September 10, 2018.