I’ve been in a pitched battle with Equifax ever since news of their breach/data theft hit the news a couple of months ago. But before I get to that, let’s provide a little background – and at the end, a brief lecture.
A couple of months ago it was revealed that over the summer Equifax (a credit monitoring agency, one of three that has us all by the short and curlies) had been the target of a huge data breach. Over 145 MILLION Americans had their data stolen from Equifax including name, address, date of birth, social security number and all other manner of information that would make identity and credit and tax theft as easy as taking candy from a baby on Halloween. The immediate – and good – advice was for everybody to place a freeze on their credit reports with the Big Three – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. I did that the minute I heard about the breach and while I was safe from having my hard-earned excellent credit rating screwed with, I was also safe from buying anything.
That was all fine with me, until I attempted to sign up for TrustedID, being offered for free by Equifax, which made setting and un-setting a lock vs. a freeze much easier in case I needed to make my report(s) available to make a major credit purchase.
Now, for the battle. To make a long story short, to use the lock at TrustedID, I first had to remove the freeze I had placed directly with Equifax. Seemed simple enough – I had a screenshot of the exact information I had entered, and the PIN they provided. But every time I tried to remove the freeze, I was told I needed to write a letter and provide more information. I tried their automated phone service – same result. I tried to connect with an Equifax customer service representative – that was the worst of all. He spoke terrible English, clearly hated his job and didn’t want to help me, put me on hold for over 15 minutes and then finally hung up on me. Finally I gave in and wrote the letter and provided all the information requested. Then I waited a month and absolutely nothing happened.
During all of this I had been in touch with the financial columnist at the New York Times (awesome guy named Ron) who was providing advice, cheerleading services, and some under-the-table info. In desperation, I tracked down the email address of the head of consumer relations for Equifax and sent him an email, including a copy of my letter. I got a read receipt for my trouble, but otherwise nothing. Zip. Nada. No reply. My credit report was frozen as solid as the North Pole and I apparently had absolutely no way to unfreeze it. Visions of never being able to purchase anything on credit again danced in my head.
Before deciding the next step I was going to take, I decided just one more time to try going to Equifax’s website with my info and precious PIN to see if I could un-freeze my report. Yes, I know, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, but by this time I was feeling pretty insane.
Well let me tell you, sometimes insanity isn’t such a bad thing. I enterest my information and – voila! – I was taken to a page where I could enter my magical PIN and my credit report was unfrozen. I then went into TrustedID and clicked the lovely little button and locked it. Then just for shits and giggles I unlocked it. Then locked it again. Then unlocked it. Then locked it again. Pure heaven. Things were at long last working as they were supposed to.
So what happened? Beats me. Did the head of consumer affairs at Equifax take pity on me, fix my stuff and just not bother to respond to my email? More likely, did Equifax just finally get their crap together and make their shit work? I’m sure I’ll never know, but at this point I’m not sure I care. I got what I wanted and I guess it doesn’t matter why. All I know is that know I have control over all three reports and I can keep them locked unless I choose to make a major purchase. Screw you hackers.
Which, finally, brings me to the lecture. Don’t wait. Sign up for Equifax’s free TrustedID service, TransUnion’s free TrueIdentity service, and the Experian freeze service. That last one will cost you $5 which in the end is better, and cheaper, than fighting identity theft. Here are the URL’s:
Equifax LOCK: https://www.trustedid.com/
Transunion LOCK: https://membership.trueidentity.com
Experian FREEZE: https://www.experian.com/freeze/center.html
Make sure you carefully record ALL information you enter to set up each service and any PIN numbers, etc. that are provided. Use screenshots if you can. Then keep it all, including the username and password for each site, in a safe place. You’ll need this information to make your credit reports accessible if you need to apply for loans like auto loans or mortgages, or to apply for credit cards or other forms of credit purchasing. Trying to unlock/unfreeze your reports without that information will be very difficult and time consuming.
Sign up for free, lovely Credit Karma, but be sure to do so BEFORE you place the freezes and/or locks on your credit report. Credit Karma will work if your accounts are locked/frozen, but only if you set up Credit Karma first. With Credit Karma you can see your credit score, get copies of your reports from Transunion and Equifax and keep an eye on everything. It helps you improve your credit score, too. I’m a big fan.
Is it worth it to do all this? Yes. It will take some time but it’s nearly all free. Experian is the only thing I’ve listed here that costs anything. In New York freezing your Experian credit report is free; temporarily or permanently removing the freeze costs $5 each time. In Massachusetts all three services cost $5. But like I said, that is much, much cheaper than fighting identity theft.
It is safe to assume at this point, after huge breaches at Target, Home Depot, Anthem Health and Equifax just to name a few, that your information has been exposed and you are at risk for identity theft. These data breaches are not going to stop, but as a consumer if you pay attention and do a little work, you can protect yourself. Don’t ignore this problem because it’s too hard or you think it’s too complicated. That’s exactly what the data thieves are hoping you’ll do. They didn’t steal all this data because they didn’t have anything else to do that day. It’s a business venture. They create databases of stolen identifying information and sell those files for a shit-ton of money on the deep web. These days you have to assume your information is in one of those files and that somebody is going to buy it and attempt to steal your identity for financial gain.
Don’t help them.