American consumers were informed on Thursday that their personal data, including social security numbers, may have been compromised in a massive data breach affecting credit reporting bureau Equifax.
Some 143 million people's information was stolen in the hack in July. Consumers are (hopefully) able to check whether they were affected by using this website.
But Equifax's response has left consumers unsure how to proceed, with its offer of free ID protection being met with skepticism in some quarters.
GoMN has taken a look at the options available to consumers looking to secure their personal information in the wake of the data breach.
Should you sign up for Equifax's ID protection?
Equifax is offering everyone up to a year of free enrollment in its Trusted ID protection program, and anyone who checked whether they were affected by the breach was given a sign-up date for when they can enroll.
But Shawna Thompson, a financial capability educator at the University of Minnesota, told GoMN that paying for a credit freeze or having a free fraud alert placed on your files (more on this below) might be better.
"Identity protection is in itself a joke," she said. "It is a money maker ... it doesn't do anything that we as consumers can't do for ourselves for free."
Trusted ID does come with some added protections, including "monitoring" across all three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion), quarterly access to your Equifax credit report and credit score, and $25,000 insurance against ID theft.
USA Today agrees with Thompson that while the "monitoring" piece of ID protection can make you aware when identity theft occurs, it does little to actually prevent it in the same way a credit freeze/fraud alert can.
Plus, what do you think happens at the end of the year's free subscription? Yep, you start paying for it. Plus, I'm sure identity thieves have no problem waiting a year for your subscription to expire, so it seems more useful to pursue options such as credit freezes or fraud alerts.
What about the lawsuit waiver?
There have been reports, including from TechCrunch, that enrollees in Trusted ID waive their right to join a class-action lawsuit against Equifax over the massive breach.
But the company has told GoMN that's not the case.
The arbitration clause and class action waiver applies only to the services you get from Trusted ID (a subsidiary of Equifax), "and not the cybersecurity incident," a spokesperson told us.
Place a credit freeze on your files
This is basically the "nuclear option" of identity protection but if you're seriously concerned about being a victim of a data breach, then this will make it much harder for anyone to open a new account in your name.
The Federal Trade Commission has more information on a credit freeze here. It works by stopping access to your credit report unless you specifically give them permission, using a pin number known only to you.
Since lenders need to access your credit report when you apply for credit cards/loans, they will contact you when they can't see your report (alerting you to the fact someone is trying to take out credit in your name).
To obtain one, you'll need to call Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. In Minnesota, it costs $5 per report to implement a credit freeze – so that's $15 in total.
A credit freeze doesn't affect your credit score nor does it prevent you from applying for credit, signing a lease etc., as you can request the freeze be temporarily lifted if required.
Here are the web links.
Place a fraud alert on your files
Unlike the credit freeze, this is temporary. By calling the aforementioned credit reporting agencies, you can ask they place a fraud alert on your credit reports for 90 days.
You can then continue renewing the alert when the 90 days expires.
A fraud alert allows creditors to access your credit report but only after they're warned you may be an identity theft victim. They then have to take steps to verify your identity.
As such, if you provide a phone number, the lender must call you to check you're the one making the credit request.
But while fraud alerts and credit freezes stop people from taking out credit in your name, it doesn't stop them misusing your existing accounts, which is why you should ...
Watch your accounts like a hawk
You should keep a close eye on your credit card and bank accounts for charges you don't recognize.
Self-monitoring doesn't cost you a dime and it's the best way to stay up to the minute on your account activity, seeing as you're the only person who truly knows where you're spending money and when.
You can also check out your credit reports free of charge for any unusual activity (in case another line of credit has been applied for/opened in your name).
You're entitled to one free credit report every 12 months from each of Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, which you can get from AnnualCreditReport.com.
File your taxes early
This is the advice of the FTC, which suggests that you file your taxes ASAP once you have all the information you need, "before a scammer can."
"Tax identity theft happens when someone uses your Social Security number to get a tax refund or a job," it says. "Respond right away to letters from the IRS."
If you have been the victim of ID theft
The first place to start is the federal ID theft website, which you can access here.
It will take you through the steps of reporting and recovering your stolen data.