There’s no shortage of advice following the Equifax data breach affecting sensitive information of about 143 million Americans.
The Akron Beacon Journal’s consumer reporter, Betty Lin-Fisher, has been writing about the data breach. She said closing off access to your credit report — known as a credit freeze — is slightly inconvenient, but it’s still better than identity theft.
One of the problems, according to Fisher, is that people have become numb to news that their sensitive information has been compromised.
“For several years now, it really has been that, ‘Here we go again, who’s the latest breach?'" Fisher said.
Not the biggest, but maybe the worst
In 2016, Yahoo announced two breaches affecting a combined 1.5 billion user accounts, though the actual number of affected people is less due to old, unused accounts and people with multiple logins. Fisher said the Equifax breach, which is estimated to affect nearly half the U.S. population, is worse for a handful of reasons.
For one thing, Fisher describes Equifax as a clearing house for “the most sensitive information out there” about its clients, including social security numbers. And many people may not realize they are indirectly clients of Equifax, even if they’ve never heard of it.
Equifax, TransUnion and Experian are the three big credit reporting agencies. These companies collect information from places like credit card companies, banks, and auto and mortgage lenders. For example, “my mortgage company made a report to one, two, or all three of them about whether I pay on time or if I’m late,” Fisher said.
The key to accessing that credit information is a person’s social security number, which gets sent to companies like Equifax in order to retrieve a credit report.
“These companies have your information,” Fisher said. “This information is what your credit score is based on, which is obviously very important when you go to look for credit.”
Protection with a credit freeze
In her reporting for the Akron Beacon Journal, Fisher wrote that she and her husband placed credit freezes on their accounts at all three reporting agencies, “which block any new credit from being granted” without their permission. But even that isn’t foolproof.
“What made this (data breach) a little more disconcerting is that the very bureau that’s there to protect me was hacked,” Fisher said.
Still, Fisher recommends the small inconvenience of approving all new credit in your name over identity theft.
Not just adults
The data breach isn’t limited to adults. Fisher reported her 14-year-old showed up as part of the breach when she used Equifax’s online tool to check his vulnerability.
“(It’s) a head-scratcher because obviously he shouldn’t have credit in his name,” Fisher said.
And, according to Fisher, someone could potentially use her son’s social security number to open a line of credit and do some serious damage to his future credit score.
“Once a child becomes an adult and wants to buy a car, their credit has been ruined because someone else has taken over that information.”