Guest Column: Equifax Breach

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By Vik Solem, president of MEI Security

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month, and fresh in our minds is the Equifax breach. Back on September 7, more than a month after their failure, Equifax admitted publicly that their security was compromised, exposing the personal information of 143,000,000 U.S. consumers. While this is not the largest data breach in number of records exposed, it is arguably the worst data breach ever due to the type of data criminals stole.

Why This Breach is Historic

This breach involved personal information, not just credit card numbers. That’s a critical distinction. If a criminal gets your credit card information you can cancel and replace the card. If the criminal made fraudulent charges you can dispute those with the credit card company. It’s worse if a criminal gets your debit card information. In that case you can get a new card, but you may have to wait for the bank to put your money back into your account. But neither of those problems lasts very long compared to the threat of identity theft.

If a criminal steals your identity information, that information is much more difficult to change, and the criminal can continue to use it for years. Even if you are able to change your social security number (which may require proof of criminal activity), many companies will continue to have your previous number and may grant credit to a criminal based on your identity. Imagine getting a bill for loans you never requested or being arrested and waiting days while fingerprints are verified to prove you’re not the criminal.

According to the information available, criminals gained access to names, social security numbers, addresses, and other information for more than 143 million people in the U.S. This places their identities at risk. Many of these people never had a direct dealing with Equifax. Despite this, the failure of Equifax to protect personal information now costs time and money for millions of people — time and money which will be required to protect people and/or to react to fraudulent activity committed in their name.

Worse, Equifax has been breached before — in 2013, 2014, 2016, and again in 2017! And they’re not alone. Experian, another credit bureau, was in the news for its own failures in 2013 and 2015. Sadly, while Equifax’s breach may suggest that other credit bureaus are more secure, this is far from certain. In any event, given the number of people who are now vulnerable to identity theft, this is quite possibly the worst data breach in history.

What You Can Do

Whether or not your personal information was exposed this time, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and make it harder for criminals to use your name. Either of these is a good idea. As you might expect, the easier one is more expensive than the harder one.

* Option 1: Sign up for credit monitoring. You may choose to do this via Equifax for free, or you may choose not to place your trust in the company that has lost control of consumer data five times in five years. Be careful to read the fine print on such an agreement. There are alternatives. (e.g. Lifelock, Transunion, Experian Identity Works, Privacy Guard). Numerous sites are available for evaluating these. The upside of this is you will receive an alert when a criminal attempts to open a new credit account in your name. Also, some of these credit monitoring companies will help if your identity is compromised. As always, choose carefully and read the fine print if you go this route. The downside is that this method is usually more expensive than a credit freeze.

* Option 2: Contact each of the major consumer credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, Innovis, Transunion) and request a credit freeze.

Pros/Cons: Depending on the state where you reside, option 2 may cost up to $15 per change. In Massachusetts the limit is $5 per change, unless you provide evidence of identity theft to the agency, in which case there is no charge. Option 2 is also more secure, but it takes more work on your part. You are in charge of requesting the freeze, and if you want to apply for a new loan you will have to determine which of the credit bureaus will be contacted regarding the loan. Then you must contact that credit bureau, and then confirm that the freeze is reinstated later. If you do this infrequently the cost is less than you would pay per year for credit monitoring, but obviously less convenient. Option 1 is less work, but more money per month.

Conclusion

Because of the large number of identities stolen, this latest Equifax breach is arguably the worst data breach in U.S. history to date. Whether online or not, there are many steps you can take to protect yourself from crime. More information about staying safe online is available at the government-sponsored website staysafeonline.org. Whether your personal information was breached in this incident or not, you are wise to do all that you can to make it more difficult for a criminal to use your identity to commit crimes and cause you harm.

MEI Security is a security consulting and training company headquartered in Stoughton. For more information, visit www.meisecurity.com.

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