How to safeguard your credit after the Equifax breach

By Andrew Housser

Most people could not miss the news: Equifax, one of the three U.S. credit monitoring bureaus, experienced a serious security breach earlier this year. Hackers accessed private information, including Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and more, belonging to 143 million Americans. That means nearly half the nation has potentially had personal information that is used for credit and loan decisions exposed.

In the wake of that security breach, you can take steps to protect yourself. These 11 steps provide ways to safeguard your financial history from fraud or theft.

Find out if you were affected. Visit the website Equifax has created at to understand the situation and learn whether your information was exposed.

Register for free credit monitoring and protection. Until Nov. 21, you can sign up at the same website for one year of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection. You will receive a copy of your Equifax credit report and the ability to put a freeze on your Equifax report. With a freeze, creditors cannot view your credit information via Equifax.

Consider placing a credit freeze with the other credit bureaus. Most creditors will not issue new credit without first checking your credit. Placing a credit freeze is similar to putting your credit cards in a bowl of water in the freezer – no one can use the credit until you “thaw” it. With a credit freeze, creditors cannot see your credit history. If a scammer tries to open credit in your name, the creditor is unlikely to issue credit without knowing the history attached to your name and Social Security number. In the event you need new credit, you will first need to thaw or unfreeze your credit. Usually, you can do this with a phone call using a secure PIN that you create when you begin the credit freeze.

Review your credit reports. Everyone is entitled by law to receive one free copy of their credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus every year. Annual Credit Report is the only authorized government website for requesting reports from all three bureaus. You also can call 877-322-8228 (toll-free), or contact each bureau individually (TransUnion, Equifax and Experian). Carefully review each report and be on the lookout for name misspellings, incorrect addresses or credit accounts that you do not recognize. If you see any errors, address them immediately.

Monitor your accounts frequently. Regularly check your bank and credit card accounts for unauthorized activity. Do not wait until you receive your monthly statement. Instead, check daily or weekly for any discrepancies. Thieves often use small, unusual amounts ($1.21 or 6 cents, for example) as a test before attempting a pricier transaction.

Report suspicious account activity. Anytime you notice unauthorized charges, call your bank or creditor immediately. The fraud monitoring department will verify your identity and, if need be, cancel your credit card and issue a new one. They also can help you dispute charges. You will not be liable for unauthorized charges.

Change your passwords. Use online passwords that mix letters, numbers and symbols. Avoid easy-to-remember (and guess) passwords such as birth dates or a child’s name. Create a unique password for each online account and change it monthly. If this is too much to remember (and it is for many people), sign up for a secure password management service such as LastPass or Password Genie. You also can password-protect credit cards and bank accounts to keep thieves out.

Stop scammers from using your information. Be wary of scams, and do not provide personal information to anyone who calls you or sends you an email you did not expect. Shred documents that include your personal information. Be especially careful to destroy credit offers you receive in the mail. Whenever possible, switch bills to electronic delivery to avoid mail theft, and drop off mailed payments via a secure, lockable mailbox or post office box.

Check your children’s credit. Children do not usually use credit, which means that it can take years to realize that someone has stolen their Social Security numbers. The risk is even higher for foster children and others whose records are in a public system. Once your children approach the teen years, it is a good idea to check their credit reports. Most will have no credit record. If they do have one, review the reports carefully to be sure all reports and information belong to your child. This is a good educational opportunity to teach children about credit, too.

Be watchful at tax time – and file taxes early. Some criminals hang onto Social Security numbers until after the new year. Then they file fraudulent tax returns in other people’s names to claim those refunds. It can be a good idea to file as early as possible to ensure that your authentic tax return reaches the IRS before a fake one can. If you have been a victim of identity theft, you can get an identity protection PIN from the IRS.

Protect yourself if you are a victim of identity theft. The U.S. government offers a guide to recovering from identity theft. The guide walks you through step-by-step actions to secure your information, stop fraudulent charges, and notify stores and credit card issuers.

It is important to take steps to reduce your risk of identity theft. With some planning, you can rest easier knowing that you are protecting yourself and your credit.

Andrew Housser is co-founder and CEO of Freedom Financial Network. The family of companies, providing innovative solutions that empower people to live healthier financial lives, includes Freedom Debt Relief and Housser holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College.