A recent consumer survey suggests that half of all Americans still haven’t checked their credit report since the Equifax breach last year exposed the Social Security numbers, dates of birth, addresses and other personal information on nearly 150 million people. If you’re in that fifty percent, please make an effort to remedy that soon.
Credit reports from the three major bureaus — Equifax, Experian and Trans Union — can be obtained online for free at annualcreditreport.com — the only Web site mandated by Congress to serve each American a free credit report every year.
Annualcreditreport.com is run by a Florida-based company, but its data is supplied by the major credit bureaus, which struggled mightily to meet consumer demand for free credit reports in the immediate aftermath of the Equifax breach. Personally, I was unable to order a credit report for either me or my wife even two weeks after the Equifax breach went public: The site just kept returning errors and telling us to request the reports in writing via the U.S. Mail.
Based on thousands of comments left here in the days following the Equifax breach disclosure, I suspect many readers experienced the same but forgot to come back and try again. If this describes you, please take a moment this week to order your report(s) (and perhaps your spouse’s) and see if anything looks amiss. If you spot an error or something suspicious, contact the bureau that produced the report to correct the record immediately.
Of course, keeping on top of your credit report requires discipline, and if you’re not taking advantage of all three free reports each year you need to get a plan. My strategy is to put a reminder on our calendar to order a new report every four months or so, each time from a different credit bureau.
Whenever stories about credit reports come up, so do the questions from readers about the efficacy and value of credit monitoring services. KrebsOnSecurity has not been particularly kind to the credit monitoring industry; many stories here have highlighted the reality that they are ineffective at preventing identity theft or existing account fraud, and that the most you can hope for from them is that they alert you when an ID thief tries to get new lines of credit in your name.
But there is one area where I think credit monitoring services can be useful: Helping you sort things out with the credit bureaus in the event that there are discrepancies or fraudulent entries on your credit report. I’ve personally worked with three different credit monitoring services, two of which were quite helpful in resolving fraudulent accounts opened in our names.
At $10-$15 a month, are credit monitoring services worth the cost? Probably not on an annual basis, but perhaps during periods when you actively need help. However, if you’re not already signed up for one of these monitoring services, don’t be too quick to whip out that credit card: There’s a good chance you have at least a year’s worth available to you at no cost.
If you’re willing to spend the time, check out a few of the state Web sites which publish lists of companies that have had a recent data breach. In most cases, those publications come with a sample consumer alert letter providing information about how to sign up for free credit monitoring. California publishes probably the most comprehensive such lists at this link. Washington state published their list here; and here’s Maryland’s list. There are more.
It’s important for everyone to remember that as bad as the Equifax breach was (and it was a dumpster fire all around), most of the consumer data exposed in the breach has been for sale in the cybercrime underground for many years on a majority of Americans. If anything, the Equifax breach may have simply refreshed some of those criminal data stores.
That’s why I’ve persisted over the years in urging my fellow Americans to consider freezing their credit files. A security freeze essentially blocks any potential creditors from being able to view or “pull” your credit file, unless you affirmatively unfreeze or thaw your file beforehand.
With a freeze in place on your credit file, ID thieves can apply for credit in your name all they want, but they will not succeed in getting new lines of credit in your name because few if any creditors will extend that credit without first being able to gauge how risky it is to loan to you (i.e., view your credit file).
Bear in mind that if you haven’t yet frozen your credit file and you’re interested in signing up for credit monitoring services, you’ll need to sign up first before freezing your file. That’s because credit monitoring services typically need to access your credit file to enroll you, and if you freeze it they can’t do that.
The previous two tips came from a primer I wrote a few days after the Equifax breach, which is an in-depth Q&A about some of the more confusing aspects of policing your credit, including freezes, credit monitoring, fraud alerts, credit locks and second-tier credit bureaus.