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The Watchdog: Equifax data breach: What to do now

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

"Watchdog, could you do a column on what steps to take to try to protect those affected by the massive Equifax breach? I want to move forward in trying to protect us, but am not sure what all I need to do."
— Cheryl DeJulius, Plano

Right on, Cheryl. Let's do this.

Dave, how bad is the data theft?

Bad. Bad. Bad. Six out of every 10 American adults are affected. Thieves stole names, birth dates, addresses, Social Security numbers and some driver's license numbers. Consumerist.com calls it "the identity theft jackpot." Imagine how quickly any two-bit crook can do damage with that information. They can raid your bank account, file false tax returns with the IRS in your name, open accounts anywhere pretending to be you.

Equifax handled the crisis correctly, right?

Are you kidding? This is a classic example of an American company screwup. Put aside, for now, the loss of highly personal data, Equifax failed to announce the theft for more than a month. The announcement was without details. The company's offer for one year of free ID theft protection was insincere and designed for profit. The personal ID numbers assigned by Equifax to complaining customers were easy to crack because they were date and time stamped.

Well ...

Wait. There's more. The website Equifax created to check to see if your data was stolen — equifaxsecurity2017.com — is unreliable. And here's what bothers The Watchdog the most: Three top Equifax executives sold nearly $1.8 million in stock in the days after Equifax discovered the cyberattack but before it was announced — and the stock price dropped.

Should I go to their website and check my name?

Don't bother. Assume your information is stolen. Let's work from there.

I'm a little confused about credit bureaus.

Equifax is one of the Big 3. They keep tabs of all your bill paying and debts owed. They calculate credit scores not only for banks and lenders, but also for insurance companies and, in some cases, your employer during a hiring process.

So, Watchdog, what do I do?

I'll give you choices. First is, do nothing.

Huh?

This is what most people will do, and it's not the worst strategy. Check bank and credit card statements regularly. Look for suspicious activity. Report it immediately to get it cleared. Go on with your life. Deal with ID theft after it happens, if it happens.

Dave, come on. I'm a member of your Watchdog Nation movement. I'm one of nearly 12 million Texans who may be affected. I want to stop ID theft from happening.

Good for you. Let's go to the other extreme. Get a security freeze. No one can open an account in your name unless they know your personal ID number. It hinders crooks, but also slows you down when you open a new account or take out a loan. That's a good thing. Crooks don't like delays.

How do you do it?

I'll show you in a side story here, but the easiest way is to use a search engine to check each of the three bureaus plus the words "security freeze" to find their websites: Equifax security freeze, TransUnion security freeze and Experian security freeze. There might be a charge, along with a charge when you temporarily remove the freeze to open an account. You have to do it at each of the three bureaus.

What else can I do?

You can choose the middle ground and put a fraud alert on your identity. Anytime anyone opens an account you get notified. They're free and renewable.

Isn't that what an identity theft protection service does?

Supposedly. Anyone can set up an initial fraud alert with a credit bureau for 90 days. If you're the victim of ID theft (that means everybody now), you can ask for an extended fraud alert which lasts seven years. Anyone pulling your report is supposed to take steps to verify your identity.

Tell me how to check my credit report.

That's easy. Just go to AnnualCreditReport.com. Don't go anywhere else, and make sure you spell it correctly or you'll end up at an imitation website that charges for something that's free. You're allowed to check one of your credit reports free every four months from one of the three bureaus. Look for strange accounts or mistakes.

Equifax is offering a free year of the ID protection service it owns called TrustedID. Should I go for it?

You mean DisTrustedID? No. They blew it. When you go to a restaurant and get food poisoning, do you go back? Anyway, a big charge kicks in after a year, so Equifax will make money off this. But if you get a security freeze, you should be OK. Crooks move on to the next sucker.

Should I hire an ID theft protection service?

No real need if you do what I describe.

Anything else, Watchdog?

Watch for fake emails, calls and letters that use your information and pretend to be from known companies you do business with. Example: You receive an email pretending to be from Equifax wanting to check your information.

How does all this end?

Change it up. Allow us to see our credit reports whenever we want. Give everyone security freezes, not just those that ask. Make them free. De-emphasize Social Security numbers, replacing with better ID protectors. Create new laws with hefty fines that punish companies like Equifax that lose data. Equifax's top leaders should resign.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

IN THE KNOW

Set up security freezes

You can create a security freeze either online, by phone or in writing. Equifax has a dedicated call center at 866-447-7559, which the company says will assist consumers. The call center is open every day (including weekends) from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Equifax: www.freeze.equifax.com; 1-800-685-1111; Equifax Security Freeze, P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, GA 30348

Experian: experian.com/freeze/center.html; 1-888-397-3742; Experian Security Freeze, P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013

TransUnion: transunion.com/securityfreeze; 1-888-909-8872; TransUnion LLC, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19022

Additional identity-theft-prevention tips from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission: identitytheft.gov

ABOUT THIS COLUMN

The Watchdog Desk works for you to shine light on questionable practices in business and government. We welcome your story ideas and tips.

Contact The Watchdog

Email: watchdog@dallasnews.com

Call: 214-977-2952

Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265