Are You At Risk From The Equifax Breach?
Earlier this year, Equifax announced that the personal information of as many as 145 million Americans had been stolen in a massive security breach.
In addition to names, Social Security numbers, and addresses, the hackers also took birth dates and driver’s license numbers. That means they have the ability to cross-reference the data and specifically target people by age group.
If your information was stolen, you’re at risk for identity theft—and worse. Criminals could steal your tax refund, create a fake Medicaid account, or redirect your Social Security check to a new address. They might even be able to access your bank accounts and clean out your savings. So what can you do about it?
To Freeze Or Not To Freeze
Experts say the cheapest “insurance” against credit fraud is to place a freeze at the three major credit monitoring bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
Here in Oregon, the charge for setting up a freeze is $10 per bureau.
A credit freeze blocks most lenders from having access to your credit history. If those prospective lenders can’t see your credit report, they won’t issue a new loan—making it hard for an identity thief to open fake accounts in your name.
Be aware, however, that if you want to make a future purchase that requires a look at your credit files (including getting a new cell phone and service, or taking out a loan) you’ll have to “unfreeze” your credit temporarily, then refreeze it later. Currently, all three bureaus will charge you for unfreezing and refreezing your information.
The state of Oregon has a webpage with more information about how to place a credit freeze.
Protect Your Social Security and Medicare
By looking at the stolen birth dates and Social Security numbers, criminals can easily determine who is eligible for Social Security benefits and Medicare.
If you’re currently receiving Social Security, a thief could pretend to be you and request that the checks be sent to a different address. If you’re eligible for benefits but haven’t claimed them yet, someone could file for your benefits and start taking them now—without you even knowing. They could make fake Medicare cards to use your benefits, or sell them to others to get medical care by assuming your identity.
To protect yourself, carefully review all benefit statements you receive from Social Security, Medicare, or any other government benefit programs. If you see any unauthorized activity, report it immediately using the contact information on the statement.
Other Accounts To Watch
Because the Equifax breach could make other accounts vulnerable to criminals, take these steps to protect yourself further:
Set up smartphone alerts on your bank and credit card accounts. This way, you’ll know if someone else is using them. (If you don’t have a smartphone, you can set the alerts to go to a trusted family member who can track them for you.)
File your taxes as soon as you have all the information you need to do so. Respond immediately to any letters from the IRS or the Oregon Department of Revenue, but ignore phone calls claiming to be from those agencies, especially if the caller asks for identifying information or demands that you send money immediately to cover overdue taxes.
Be Smart And Stay Alert
While there’s no need to panic about the Equifax breach, it is important to stay on top of your personal financial information and accounts. Equifax is unable to say exactly whose information was stolen, and thieves may be biding their time until the story is “old news” before starting to use the stolen information.
Keeping a close eye on your accounts and credit reports is a smart practice for every senior. If the task feels overwhelming, ask a trusted family member to help. A little vigilance will go a long way to protecting you financially and helping you maintain your peace of mind.
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