Watchdog, I had a terrible week because of you.
A week ago you recommended we place security freezes on our credit reports because of the Equifax crisis. I called and went online with Equifax, TransUnion and Experian, but it was a nightmare. I couldn't get through.
They're overwhelmed. Six out of 10 adults in the U.S. had their personal information stolen, including birth date and Social Security number, key information needed to open or raid accounts.
Millions are calling the three credit bureaus and using their websites. The load is too much.
Due to Equifax's unreliability, no one can be certain if their info is stolen. So assume it is.
So how do I get through?
One woman told me she called in the middle of the night.
Ugh. Do I have to do this right away?
Of course not. Add it to your to-do list. But put a security freeze on before Nov. 21, because Equifax says it will waive fees for placing and removing security freezes through that date.
Can I afford to wait until November to do this?
Yep. What are the chances someone will open a credit card account in the next weeks in your name? About as good as Jerry Jones announcing he won't be the Cowboys general manager. This is a long-term protection project. Don't fret. There's a lot of fretting going on.
Did you hear from a lot of fretting people this week, Watchdog?
Lots. This is the biggest consumer story of the year. I imagine many households are having the "what-do-we-do?" conversation. I just want to hug everyone and say, "It's gonna be OK." I've had my identity stolen, and never lost a penny because the bank reimbursed me. That's life, baby.
What are you doing personally, Watchdog?
Regular credit monitoring through a monthly service. Got my free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com a few weeks ago. Waiting for things to settle down before putting security freezes on accounts belonging to both me and my wife. (Yes, both spouses need them.) Also, we're on high alert for phone calls or emails that claim to be from Equifax or any other company or individual wanting to "verify" our information. Phooey.
Tell me again the difference between a fraud alert and a security freeze?
A fraud alert notifies you when anyone opens an account in your name, including you. It's free and renewable. A security freeze is supposed to block outsiders from opening an account in your name because they don't know your secret PIN. (For a fraud alert, only one of three credit bureaus must be notified, but for a security freeze you must notify each bureau.)
What is Equifax saying about its mess?
The company announced the "retirement" of its chief information officer and chief security officer. Dandy. Also, three top executives are being investigated for insider trading. They dumped their stock before the breach was publicly announced.
The Watchdog believes that CEO Richard F. Smith needs to say bye-bye. In the absence of government penalty, that dude needs to fall on his sword.
Oh, and get this: Equifax tells The Watchdog that its free credit monitoring service (TrustedID Premier, its makeup offer) is now open to all consumers for one year. Everybody! (Good luck getting through.) The company has increased its call center workers, but these newbies don't know the business.
Do you recommend getting their free TrustedID protection?
Equifax is the villain here. Why trust them? This wasn't even their first breach this year. I learned through victims who contacted me this week that Equifax was also hit in March. Hackers raided W-2 forms of people whose companies hired Equifax for payroll help.
Also, before enrolling, note that customers who did enroll and gave Equifax a credit card number are the ones whose credit card numbers were stolen. Oy.
After a year, do I have to pay for the TrustedID program?
That was the original plan. Now the company promises that automatic switching to the paid plan won't happen. You can cancel the service before the monthly payments kick in.
How hard is it to remove a security freeze so I can open a new account? And how do I know if it's working?
Supposedly with a PIN, not hard. Personally, I can't tell because the last time I used a security freeze, there was no PIN. Instead I was asked questions about where I lived in previous years and cars I used to own. If you want to test your security freeze, go to a store and ask to open a credit card account. See what happens.
Does the theft put us in danger in other ways, such as hacking our investments, our 401(k) accounts and Social Security benefits? Is there anything we can do?
Yes, absolutely. Crooks could have enough information, especially when they pair it with scary websites like TruePeopleSearch.com, which has lots of information about us. (Look yourself up and then use this removal tool — truepeoplesearch.com/removal.)
My recommendation is to always use safeguards like two-step authentication, if it's offered. That sends a code to your mobile phone or by email to get into your accounts. It takes an extra 30 seconds.
When my wife and I had our what-do-we-do conversation, she pushed for me to set up alerts on my bank and credit accounts, if available, so I get notified anytime anyone spends money from them. She's right. Many companies I do business with have set up alert mechanisms, and I haven't visited their websites in a long time to check.
Remember, aside from debit card theft which comes with less protection than credit card misuse, any losses sustained from ID theft shouldn't come from your pocket.
What's the big picture here?
Americans have opened their eyes to the loose ways credit bureaus operate and their tremendous power over our lives. (Their credit scores determine our loan and insurance rates, for instance.) Equifax's shocking cyber incompetence is only the start. (By the way, they had a patch for the software flaw — but didn't use it.)
Here are some big ideas. Regulate the credit bureaus the ways banks and insurance companies are supervised. Make security freezes last forever and give everyone one by default. Ban charges for placing and lifting security freezes. Create financial penalties to punish credit bureaus that fail us. Convince the state to update the Texas Business and Commerce Code to give the state more authority over credit bureaus that compile financial dossiers on Texans.
Invitation: Come meet The Watchdog, and learn how to be your own watchdog. Come to my free, fun training session from 11 a.m. to noon Saturday at The Dallas Morning News, 508 Young St. in Dallas. RSVP to "Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation" page on Facebook (but that's not necessary.) Free parking. The Watchdog can't wait to meet you.
Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.
Contact the credit bureaus
Bureaus are getting slammed. These are their main numbers, but don't be surprised if they don't work. You can do a web search for each bureau's name and "security freeze" or "fraud alert" to see where they are steering consumers. Expect delays. Try later.
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
Only get your free credit report from AnnualCreditReport.com.
Invite to Watchdog seminar
What: Watchdog Nation free seminar
When: Saturday from 11 a.m. to noon
Where: The Dallas Morning News, 508 Young St., Dallas
Parking: Free on campus
Questions: Write to email@example.com
RSVP: "Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation" on Facebook (but not necessary)
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
Write: Dave Lieber, P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX 75265