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Consumer Tips and FAQ about the Equifax Breach

By Mike Litt
Consumer Program Advocate

Hackers gained access to the personal data of as many as 143 million Americans in the Equifax breach. Here are some recommended actions consumers can take to protect themselves and answers to frequently asked questions. 

Tips:

  1. Request a free credit report - all three credit bureaus will give you one free report per year.
  2. Consider placing a credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) with all three credit bureaus. See our step-by-step guide for getting credit freezes.

  3. Place a free fraud alert. Any consumer can place a free renewable 90-day fraud alert by law by contacting any one of the three credit bureaus. You’ll need to set a tickler on your calendar to renew it every three months.
  4. Don't accept any deal from Equifax until you understand how Equifax has modified its terms of service, and read our summary of the limitations and potential risks of Equifax’s offering.

  5. If you’ve already been affected, take steps to recover from identity theft visiting identitytheft.gov.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What happened?
Am I affected?
What should I do?
What is a credit freeze?
Should I accept the package offered by Equifax?
What is Equifax offering? And why does it fall short?
How do I place a credit freeze?
Can I get the fees for a credit freeze refunded to me from Equifax?
What should the government be doing about this incident?
What do I do if I detect New Account Identity Theft?
What is our consumer team doing to solve the problems?

Q: What happened?
A: Equifax, one of the big three credit reporting agencies, announced on September 7th that it had been hacked, potentially compromising the data of 143 million Americans.

The types of information taken from the massive credit bureau, particularly Social Security numbers and dates of birth, are the keys to new account identity theft. This means identity thieves could open fraudulent credit accounts and rack up tons of debt in your name.

This is a big deal. To make matters worse, there’s a lot of confusion over what to do now.

Q: Am I affected?
A: Equifax has a website where you can use a tool to see whether your information has been hacked. We have seen numerous press reports that it gives different results at different times.1 Presume instead that it is more likely than not that your information has been compromised. 

Q: What should I do? 
A: We recommend taking the following steps:

  • Request free credit reports at all three credit bureaus to spot any unauthorized activity. If you request a copy of your report every 3-4 months throughout the year, you are essentially doing your own free credit monitoring. The official website authorized by the government for requesting these free reports is annualcreditreport.com.

  • Consider placing credit freezes on your credit reports with all three credit bureaus.More info about credit freezes and how-to do this are answered below.

  • Place free, renewable fraud alerts on your credit report if you decide not to place credit freezes on your credit reports.

  • Additionally, identitytheft.gov is the government’s official website that will walk you through clear checklists of actions you can take to recover from identity theft.

Q: What is a credit freeze?
A: A security freeze prevents new accounts from being opened by blocking your credit report from being shared with potential new creditors, such as banks or credit card companies. Most creditors will not issue new credit to a customer if they cannot see that customer’s credit report or score derived from it from at least one of the three major national credit bureaus. So if a thief applies for a new account in your name with your Social Security number and his or her own address, but your credit report is frozen, creditors will simply not open a new account.

A security freeze does not affect your ability to use existing credit you already have, such as a credit card or loan, nor does it prevent existing creditors from reviewing your continued eligibility for current or additional credit.

  • You can easily unfreeze or “thaw” your credit report when you want to apply for new credit.

  • A security freeze does not affect your credit score. In fact, a security freeze helps protect your score by preventing your credit from being negatively scored if someone tries to fraudulently apply for credit in your name.

  • Security freezes are available to consumers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. A security freeze costs between $3-10 for each of the three major national credit bureaus, depending on the state. There is a $2-12 fee, depending on the state, for unfreezing your credit report with each bureau. All states give you the right to free security freezes if you can prove that you are an identity theft victim. Some states offer them for free to consumer 65 years+.

  • There are seven states where freezes are free to all consumers, whether they are identity theft victims or not:Colorado, Indiana, Maine, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

  • Security freezes can also be placed by parents and legal guardians of minors and medically incapacitated consumers.

Consumers who chose a security freeze should account for the time it can take to thaw their reports if they want to apply for credit in the future. In most cases if a request for a thaw is made online or over the phone, a report can be unfrozen within 15 minutes. However, it can take longer if a consumer lost his or her PIN number that was assigned when the report was frozen. It can also take up to three days of receipt of a thaw request if it is made via postal mail.

Q: I have heard that by agreeing to this package I am signing away my right to sue? Should I accept the package offered by Equifax?
A: The package of services offered by Equifax falls short of protecting consumers. If you take any of these services, be aware of the limitations, also follow our tips above, and consider the following:

To take advantage of Equifax’s package, you have to agree to be bound by an online agreement. Equifax’s original package agreement included an arbitration clause, which Equifax could have tried to use to bar victims of the data breach from joining class action lawsuits. After public outcry, Equifax removed the arbitration clause from its agreement.

However, Equifax has a separate Terms of Use agreement on its website which includes an arbitration clause. There remained some concern that Equifax could try to use this clause to bind victims who agree to be bound by the package agreement. Due to continued public outcry, Equifax added language that says this separate agreement does not apply to its free package.

There is still the possibility that Equifax might change these agreements in the future. We advise consumers to generally be on alert for arbitration clauses in agreements with financial companies.

If you choose to take any of the services in its package, be aware of the limitations of these services and also follow our tips.

Q: What is Equifax offering? And why does it fall short?
A: Equifax is offering a package to anyone, whether their info was lost or not, made up of five different services or products. Services can be selected individually, in combination, or as a total package. This package falls short of protecting consumers. Here's what they are offering and what the limitations of each are:

  1. Copies of your Equifax credit report.
    Looking at your credit report is a good idea because you can spot unauthorized activity in your name. It's a good idea to check your credit report at all three bureaus, not just Equifax. You can request free copies of your credit report at all three bureaus at annualcreditreport.com, the official website authorized by the government for requesting these free reports. 
  2. Credit monitoring for one year at all three national credit bureaus.
    Credit monitoring alerts you to changes to your credit reports, which can help you spot unauthorized activity in your name.The types of stolen information, particularly social security numbers and dates of birth, can be used to commit new account identity theft against everyone whose info was breached. This means bad guys could open fraudulent credit accounts and rack up tons of debt in your name.Due to huge marketing pushes by credit monitoring services that only alert consumers to fraud after the fact, most Americans are not aware that they can actually prevent id thieves from opening new credit accounts in their names in the first place by placing freezes on their credit accounts at all three national credit bureaus. Credit freezes help prevent new account identity theft because they keep potential creditors from seeing consumer credit history, without which new accounts are typically not opened.  Equifax’s package includes credit monitoring at all three bureaus for only one year. Equifax should make it clear that monitoring only alerts people to fraudulent activity after it has occurred, and they should offer it indefinitely, not just one year. The stolen information does not have a shelf life.
  3. Equifax Credit Report Lock
    Equifax’s package also includes something similar to a credit freeze, something they call a “credit report lock,” but only for Equifax reports. Bad guys could still try to open credit accounts with companies that use the other two credit bureaus for credit checks. So a freeze or "lock" with only one bureau is incomplete protection. Equifax should make clear the benefits of the credit freeze and offer it for free with all three bureaus, not just themselves. Equifax should reimburse consumers who place freezes on their own.You're better off getting actual credit freezes with all three bureaus, not the one "lock" with Equifax. You can find out how to get all three credit freezes here.
  4. Social Security Number Monitoring
    Equifax advertises this services as searching "suspicious websites for your Social Security number." This service by itself  wouldn't' hurt,  but again, the only fraud that can actually be prevented once someone has your Social Security number is new account identity fraud. And the only way to prevent that is through credit freezes. You're best off getting credit freezes with all three bureaus.
  5. $1M Identity Theft Insurance
    This is a feature that reimburses you for costs incurred from identity theft. It’s worth noting that you might already have some sort of insurance or equivalent protection from fraud resulting from id theft that is extended to you voluntarily by your employer, your insurance company (as a rider on your existing homeowner’s or renter’s insurance), or your credit card issuer (as a perk), etc. It’s also important to point out that ID theft insurance, whether offered free or as part of a service that you’re paying for always has limitations, exclusions, and requirements and usually only covers incidental expenses to clear ID theft problems up such as postage and notary fees. It doesn’t usually reimburse you for money that’s been stolen from you, and if it claims to cover attorney’s fees, remember that such coverage is usually extremely limited.2

Q: How do I place a credit freeze?
A: You can place a freeze online, over the phone, or in writing.

Equifax
Online: https://www.freeze.equifax.com
Phone: 1-800-685-1111 (NY residents please call 1-800-349-9960)
Mail: Equifax Security Freeze, P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, Georgia 30348

Experian
Online: https://www.experian.com/freeze/center.html
Phone: 1‑888‑397‑3742
Mail: Experian Security Freeze, P.O. Box 9554, Allen, Texas 75013
Experian includes a potentially confusing three paragraph “Security Freeze Warning.” They are just explaining that you will need to unfreeze your credit report before applying for credit if you ever wish to do so in the future. 

TransUnion
Online: http://www.transunion.com/securityfreeze
Phone: 888-909-8872
Mail: TransUnion LLC, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016

Additional detailed Identity Theft Tips from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission are here.

Q: Can I get the fees for a credit freeze refunded to me from Equifax?
A: Originally, Equifax did not waive the fee for credit freezes on Equifax reports. (Again, it was offering a “lock,” which is similar but not the same thing.)

According to The New York Times, Equifax is now waiving the fee for credit freezes on Equifax reports until November 21st.3 It has also agreed to refund the fees already paid for freezes on Equifax reports.

However, it does not yet appear to be paying the fees for placing freezes with the other two bureaus.

We are pushing Equifax to pay for credit freezes with all three bureaus, including providing refunds to people who have already paid for freezes.

Q: What should the government be doing about this incident?
A: Investigations by the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and state attorneys general, have begun and are important steps in holding Equifax accountable to consumers who had no choice to be in a relationship with them to begin with. Potential criminal wrongdoing should also be investigated.

Depending on your state, credit freezes cost $3-10 at each bureau. Credit freezes are only free in 7 states (about to be 8 in October). We’re working on making them free in Illinois and Massachusetts. Congress should take the lead and make them free for everyone in the country.

Even with everything the Equifax breach has brought to light, many in Congress are trying to dismantle the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and get rid of protections, including our right to a day in court with companies like Equifax. Protecting consumers is not a left-right issue, it’s a little guy-big guy issue.

Q: What do I do if I detect New Account Identity Theft?
A: Take the following steps.

Step 1: Notify your financial institutions. If you discover that your wallet, checkbook, credit card or other sensitive information has been lost or stolen, immediately notify the issuing bank, credit card issuer or relevant institution to close all existing accounts.
Step 2: Get an Identify Theft Affidavit. If you suspect identity theft, report it to the Federal Trade Commission using the online complaint form or by calling 1-877-ID-THEFT. When making the report, you will be given an option to receive an Identity Theft Affidavit. This document, together with the police report, will be critical to minimizing the damage.
Step 3: File a police report. If you believe you are a victim of identity theft, file a report with your local police department. When you make the report, bring a copy of the Identity Theft Affidavit. The police report will be important for insurance purposes. Keep copies of the police report and Identity Theft Affidavit.
Step 4: Contact the three major credit reporting companies and place a fraud alert on your accounts. If you haven’t already, it’s time to place a security freeze.

Q: What is our consumer team doing to solve the problems?
A: Plenty. First, we're spreading the word through the media and on social media about how consumers can protect themselves. Help us reach more people by sharing our Facebook post here.

Second, we're asking Equifax to do more to making things right for consumers. We're putting together a call to action requesting that the company offer free credit freezes for all three credit reporting companies; and, for consumers who choose not to freeze their credit reports, unlimited credit monitoring -- not just one year. After all, there's no expiration date on when thieves can use stolen personal information.

Congress is planning to hold hearings on the issue. We'll urge members of Congress to address these issues and more, and reject legislation that would actually weaken protections at the credit reporting companies. And we'll continue to hold the companies accountable through our research, reports, consumer tips and media outreach. 

1. Brian Krebs, “Equifax Breach Response Turns Dumpster Fire,” Krebs on Security, September 8, 2017
2. Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy, Consumer Federation, personal communication, 17 September 2015
3. Ron Lieber, “Equifax, Bowing to Public Pressure, Drops Credit-Freeze Fees,” The New York Times, September 12, 2017.

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