10 ways to protect yourself after a data breach

With the report last week that Equifax, one of the three major credit reporting firms in the United States, had been hacked, it’s a good time to review your credit history and ensure that your information has been protected.

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1. Freeze your credit

Freezing your credit means you’ve placed restrictions on who can view your credit report. Any fraudster who tries to use your credit for activities where institutions check your credit score – housing, new checking accounts and new credit cards – won’t be able to.

There’s a $5-$10 charge for freezing your score with each credit bureau.

When you need a new lender to pull your report, you can call the credit bureau and get them to thaw your credit.

2. Sign up for fraud alerts

While a freeze locks down your credit to all requests, a fraud alert will allow creditors to get a copy of your credit report as long as they take steps to verify your identity. They can be effective at stopping someone from opening new credit accounts in your name, but they may not prevent the misuse of your existing accounts.

You still need to monitor all bank, credit card and insurance statements for fraudulent transactions.

3. Know the types of fraud alerts

There are three types of fraud alerts: Initial fraud alert, extended fraud alert and active duty military alert.

Initial fraud alert is for people who are concerned about identity theft, but haven’t yet become a victim. This will protect your credit from unverified access for at least 90 days. An extended fraud alert for fraud victims will protect your credit for seven years. For those in the military who want to protect their credit while deployed, this fraud alert lasts for one year.

4. Change your information

If you’re doing business with a company that has suffered a data breach, change your login information on your accounts with that company. If you’ve used the same user name and password on other sites, change them as well.

5. Keep an eye on your accounts

If you have a credit account with a retailer that has been breached, make sure you monitor your financial accounts. Your liability may depend on how quickly you spot and report suspicious transactions.

6. No phishing here

Thieves often take advantage of news reports about breaches to start new attacks by phishing. They pose as representatives of the affected company to trick consumers into giving up their personal information.

7. Free monitoring

If a company offers free credit monitoring after a breach, take advantage of it. This will help you catch new accounts opened in your name.

Equifax is offering a year of credit monitoring and identity theft insurance for free in response to their hack.

8. Deal with debt collectors

If accounts are fraudulently opened in your name, be prepared for phone calls from debt collectors.

If a collector calls, make sure to learn the identity of both the debt collector and the lender to whom the debt is owed. Be attentive and prompt in responding – that will help prove the debt isn’t yours.

If you feel you are being harassed, look into response letters to send to debt collectors.

9. Check your credit reports

Get your credit reports and dispute any errors you may find. The official site to get free copies of your credit reports every 12 months is AnnualCreditReport.com.

As high as 70% of credit reports have errors that could be hurting your score. Some might be your mistakes, but don’t pay the price for someone else’s crimes.

10. File your taxes early

One common scam is for identity thieves to file a tax return in your name. They then claim your refund, and you’re left out in the cold.

Get your claim in early to head off would-be scammers. Also, don’t believe anyone who says they’re calling from the IRS and threatens you with arrest unless you pay back taxes, even if they know your Social Security number.

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