Elliott Greenblott | Fraud Watch: In wake of Equifax breach, take steps to protect your credit

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This column has been modified to remove incorrect references to the bureau that was hacked and to add and correct hyperlinks.

This has been one of the busiest months for Fraud Watch. It began with reports of counterfeit products, moved to fraudulent disaster relief, and now focuses on one of the most extensive data breaches in American history.

Late last week, Equifax, one of three major credit rating and reporting bureaus, reported that it experienced a breach in data records. The three bureaus, Equifax, Experian and Transunion, collect and monitor the financial records of practically every citizen.

They produce credit reports containing bill payment history, loans, current debt, home ownership and other financial information. They also show where you work, live, bank and whether you have been arrested, sued or have filed for bankruptcy.

These credit reports are used by lenders to determine credit worthiness and may be used by prospective employers, insurers and rental property owners. It is important to understand that credit bureaus serve a vital role in our economic life but also provide cyber criminals with attractive targets.

From what we understand, Equifax's files were "hacked" (illegally accessed) and the personal financial records of over 143 million Americans stolen. Put in comparative terms, at least one half of the American adult population entered a high-risk situation as a result of this security breach.

The actual theft occurred in July but may have been preceded by a series of cyberattacks at a much smaller scale. General notice of the situation was not made public until this past week. The reasons for the delayed notice and the details in the nature of the crime will be addressed by law enforcement and hopefully congressional action may result.

The critical question boils down to this: What steps should be taken to reduce the potential for serious individual losses? Equifax is providing a method for determining if your data has been compromised. Go to the https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com. Read the information on the web page and click on the box that reads "POTENTIAL IMPACT at the bottom of the page. By following the instructions, you will receive information on your status.

Regardless of whether or not your data have been compromised, you can enroll in free credit monitoring and identity theft protection that Equifax is providing to all consumers. Enrollment can be accomplished through the website or by telephone at 866-447-7559.

Please note that the phone lines are currently swamped and it may be difficult to speak to a representative. Some consumers may be enrolled in a commercial or government credit monitoring service. Registration for this free one-year program does not affect any other program to which you subscribe.

There are some other steps that should be taken. Exercise your rights to free copies of your credit reports from www.annualcreditreport.com or make your request by calling 877-322-8228. Everyone is entitled annually to free copies of credit reports from all three bureaus.

You may even wish to take time to contact each of the credit reporting bureaus and request that a freeze be placed on your credit reports. Under a freeze, credit information will be denied by the bureaus to banks, lenders, credit card companies and other institutions. It will be impossible for new accounts to be opened since most financial businesses require a credit check before opening an account.

Of course this may also impact your ability to make major purchases that require financing agreements or even property rental, but in these cases it is possible to lift freezes for specific items. The three credit reporting bureaus must be contacted separately as follows; Equifax, https://www.freeze.equifax.com/Freeze or call 800-685-1111; Experian, https://www.experian.com/freeze or call 888-909-3742; Transunion, https://freeze.transunion.com or call 888-909-8872.

If you are a victim of identity theft, contact the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftc.gov. You can also contact state government: Massachusetts attorney general at www.mass.gov/ago/consumer-resources; New York attorney general, www.dos.ny.gov/consumerprotection; the Vermont Attorney General's Office, www.uvm.edu/consumer.

Unsure of where to go? Have questions and need assistance? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org or the AARP National Fraud Watch Network helpline at 877-908-3360.

Finally, consider joining the AARP Fraud Watch Network as a Volunteer. AARP is seeking Fraud Fighters of all ages. Contact the AARP Massachusetts Office at 866-448-3621, AARP New York Office at 866-227-7442, or AARP Vermont Office at 866-227-7451.

Elliott Greenblott is a coordinator for the AARP Fraud Watch Network and writes this biweekly column. If you suspect that you may be a victim of a computer-based scam, call the AARP Fraud Watch Network hotline at 877-908-3360 or the Massachusetts Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at 617-727-8400.


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