Active-duty service members among the 143 million Americans affected by the Equifax data breach may be more vulnerable to its potential fallout, one consumer advocacy group said.
“Since active-duty servicemembers frequently move due to Permanent Change of Station orders, this can make it even harder to quickly learn if they’ve had their identities stolen,” wrote Rohit Chopra, senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, in a recent blog.
This theft of personal information can create financial nightmares for service members and their families, he said. “If thieves can open accounts without the service member’s knowledge, this can lead to a credit report overflowing with unpaid debts ― a sure way to get a security clearance revoked and short circuit a military career if left unresolved,” he said.
Just because you’ve received no notification that your data has been stolen doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. If you have a credit report, chance are good that your data was exposed, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
What you need to know about the breach, and how to protect yourself:
Breach basics: Equifax is one of the nation’s three major credit reporting agencies, which collect credit account information about individuals’ borrowing and repayment history.
According to Equifax, criminals gained access to certain files in a period from mid-May through July, which also happens to be the heavy moving season for military families. The breach wasn’t announced until Sept. 7.
The information stolen includes names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some cases, driver’s license numbers. About 209,000 Americans had their credit card numbers stolen, and criminals hacked into certain financial dispute documents with personal identifying information for about 182,000 consumers.
Am I on the list?: According to an Equifax announcement, the company will send direct mail notices to consumers whose credit card numbers or dispute documents with the personal information were accessed.
The other 143 million people need to go to Equifax’s dedicated security website to find out whether their information was stolen. Equifax has reconfigured it to put a prominent button on their site clearly directing you where to go to find out if you’re affected, and to sign up for free identity theft protection and credit file monitoring.
What do I do about it?: Equifax is offering Trusted ID Premier, which includes three-bureau credit monitoring of Equifax, Experian and TransUnion credit reports; copies of Equifax credit reports; the ability to lock and unlock Equifax credit reports; identity theft insurance and Internet scanning for Social Security numbers. The service will be offered free for one year.
Chopra urges all military families to consider initiating an active-duty alert or a security freeze with the major credit bureaus.
The active-duty alert is free; Equifax, Experian and TransUnion each have a web page to request the alert. You can sign up with one of the agencies, and the law requires each company to notify the other credit reporting agency.
Potential lenders will still be able to access your credit report, but they’ll hopefully be spurred to be on the lookout for fraud. The alert lasts for 12 months unless you remove it sooner; your name will be removed for two years from credit reporting agencies’ pre-screening lists for credit offers and insurance, unless you request otherwise.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has received hundreds of complaints from deployed service members who reported damage to their credit reports because of identity theft or other misuses of their accounts, the bureau said. But few of these reported initiating an active-duty alert before they deployed.
The security freeze isn’t free for everyone, but fees are generally capped under state law. Chopra urges military families to consider the freeze. This locks down your credit report; lenders, prospective landlords and employers won’t be able to access it. You’ll have to place a freeze with each credit reporting agency, and you’ll have to take steps to remove the freeze when you want to use the credit record.
6 PROTECTION TIPS
Some steps you can take whether you’ve been affected by this breach or are worried about the next one:
1. Monitor your accounts. Don’t wait for monthly statements. Check online or by phone to see if there’s activity you don’t recognize. Notify your financial institution immediately if you suspect fraud.
2. Get notified. Ask your financial institution if it has alerts that you can sign up for if, for instance, an address change is made or a debit card is requested.
3. Check your credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com. By law, you can get a free credit report every 12 months from each of the three credit reporting agencies. Space them out so you can check your credit every four months, rather than all three once a year. Look for charges you didn’t authorize, or new accounts you didn’t open.
4. Don’t make it easy. Change the personal identification number on your debit card and other accounts. If you can’t log in or get access, call the financial institution immediately.
5. PCS with care. Contact your financial institutions and others you do business with, if you still get paper statements, and give them your change of address. Forward your mail to the new address. If you don’t yet have an address, try to set up a post office box or forward mail to a trusted family member, to keep unsolicited credit offers (and important mail) out of the hands of thieves.
6. Deploy smart. Make sure your spouse or partner left behind, or someone else you trust, is collecting your mail and taking care of bills and other needs ... and keeping a watchful eye out.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.