News about the massive Equifax data breach has been unrelenting since the credit bureau publicly disclosed its lapse at the beginning of September. It’s difficult to keep up with all the company’s blunders, not to mention the complicated fiscal policy and regulatory debates the incident has fueled. But weeks later, most consumers in the United States are still just trying to figure out what the whole thing means for them, and how to steel themselves against identity theft and fraud.
Equifax will be extending the enrollment period for its credit monitoring and freezing services through January. Credit monitoring sends you alerts so you can catch any suspicious activity early, while credit freezes actually lock down your credit files so institutions you don’t already do business with can’t access your data without specific permission from you and special PIN numbers. A freeze significantly reduces the chance that a fraudster will be able to do things like take out a line of credit in your name. Personal identity security advocates have long favored freezes, but acknowledge that the measure isn’t necessarily for everyone (say, someone who anticipates applying for student loans) since it is fairly rigid and restrictive.
It is worth utilizing one or both of these tools, but at the end of the free year 143 million social security numbers (not to mention other valuable data) will still have been compromised in the breach, necessitating ongoing defense. “We generally tell people that if an entity is offering a free service they should strongly consider taking advantage of it,” says Eva Velasquez, president of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. “Consumers have to demand security over convenience so that businesses will respond. Just don’t be the low hanging fruit. Anything is better than nothing long term.”
The free monitoring and freezes have a short time span, perhaps because they are services Equifax wants to resume capitalizing on as quickly as possible.
The third service Equifax is rolling out, a so-called “credit lock” tool, will debut in January, and will be a more flexible option through which consumers can lock and unlock access to their credit data whenever they want.
Experts agree that to protect themselves, consumers need to see past the gimmicks and noise to the long game of utilizing what Equifax and other companies that have experienced data breaches provide while planning to supplement as needed. If your data is compromised in multiple breaches over time you may be able to daisy chain years of free services together. And everyone can pull and review one complete credit report per year for free from AnnualCreditReport.com. Additionally, consumers need to be aware that credit monitoring, locks, and freezes alike don’t protect against things like tax fraud and medical fraud, in which identity thieves can file bogus tax returns on your behalf to claim your refund or jeopardize your insurance coverage by scamming your provider.