With Equifax’s recent disclosure of its data security breach that left more than 143 million American consumers vulnerable to digital predators (cybercriminals), many are understandably anxious about what this means for the security of their personal and financial information.  According to the company’s statement, social security numbers, addresses, birth dates, credit card numbers, driver’s licenses numbers and other personally identifiable information (PII) have been accessed.   Not only were U.S. customers impacted, but information on residents of the U.K. and Canada was also gathered.

Details surrounding the depth of this breach, and how much the company’s senior management knew prior to public discovery are still being uncovered.  It will take years to fully understand the ramifications.  Meanwhile, victims are left wondering how to protect themselves today.

We have been watching how the early remedies and actions have unfolded.  Accordingly, Wescott advises that you take the following measures to limit the impact of misuse of your personal and financial information.

1. Credit monitoring is the first step we recommend you take as you begin to secure your vulnerable information. You can and should personally check and monitor all of your accounts via a credit report, setting alerts on access to your credit and to ensure unauthorized changes have not been made. There are a multitude of credit monitoring services out there that assist you in this task, such as each of the main three credit reporting agencies, LifeLock and several other services.

2. Equifax itself is offering a fee-waived credit monitoring service called Equifax’s TrustedID.

While credit monitoring is an important proactive first step in securing your accounts and personal information, credit monitoring services do have their limitations.  They do not protect you from being a victim of fraud.  Instead, they notify you if someone attempts to fraudulently open a new line of credit in your name.  In this situation, where it remains unknown the true impact of this breach, Wescott encourages that you make additional efforts to protect yourself.

3. A Credit Freeze takes protecting your financial and personal security to the next level. Credit freezes essentially lock down your credit files. It prevents potential creditors from viewing, or pulling, your credit report.  For example, even though cybercriminals may have stolen your social security number, by placing a credit freeze on your information, these thieves will not be able to walk into a bank to take out a loan in your name, or get a credit card, or other credit in your name, because a creditor will not be able to access your credit report.

This option will give you the most protection and security from identity theft and financial fraud.  However, a credit freeze is a more involved process than credit monitoring.  You must contact and place a credit freeze with each of the three credit bureaus.

Fees also may be involved when placing a credit freeze.  Each of the three bureaus individually charge you $10 per freeze; and you have to freeze all three to be truly protected.  In light of recent events, Equifax is waiving the fee if you wish to place a credit freeze with them.

Keep in mind, after placing a credit freeze, if you wish to open any new lines of credit (i.e. applying for a mortgage, or any credit related transaction such as a new cell phone plan or a new utility account at a new residence), you must lift the freeze with each bureau before doing so.  You will have to reinstate the freeze once your request for credit has been approved.  Doing so, as such, may incur additional fees. Or, you can modify the freeze to limit your credit information to a particular lender, or for a particular period of time.

Information on credit freezes for each of the bureaus is below. Note that the Equifax breach has affected the systems and response time of each of the credit bureaus.

Equifax

By phone:  1-800-685-1111

NY residents only:  1-800-349-9960

TransUnion

By phone:  1-888-909-8872

Experian

By phone: 1-888-EXPERIAN (1-888-397-3742). When calling, press 2 and then follow prompts for security freeze.

4. Other measures that will assist Wescott clients to remain vigilant in protecting their information include requesting a free annual credit report from each of the three agencies via the Annual Credit Report bureau, placing a fraud alert on your credit report, being wary of constant social engineering attacks (i.e. phishing emails, calls or texts) and enabling two-factor authentication on accounts. This last point is a newer technology that is often still optional. It requires you to answer an additional question after initial log-in, supply a code or otherwise confirm that you are you and the website you accessed is authentic.

Please note that two-factor authentication is that extra layer of digital security that you are able to set-up on many, if not all of your digital accounts, whether they are financial, or informational like your email.  This extra layer of digital security is available on your myWescottVault™ and Wescott’s custodians’ sites.  These secure sites that are available to our clients allow you to store any private information without worry.

There are a multitude of ways to protect your financial and personal information from cybercriminals.  Many states’ Attorneys General are representing the consumers of their states, actively pursuing investigations and lawsuits to further protect consumers and make services available free of charge.  See a recent article here.

As we learn more about the breadth of how Equifax victims were compromised, there may be additional solutions that become available in the coming days and months.  If you have any concerns, or questions, about your personal and financial security, please reach out to your Wescott advisor.  They will be happy to help address your needs and navigate you through this complex and constantly evolving situation.