Feeling a little over-exposed lately? You’re in good company. It’s a safe bet that most Americans are feeling more personally and financially vulnerable since Equifax recently announced that hackers got hold of the personal data of some 143 million U.S. consumers.
The cybersecurity disaster exposed vital information like names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, addresses, credit card information, and even some driver’s license numbers, all of which could be used to clone credit cards, and worse yet, identities.
So, what can you do to protect yourself against cyber bullies intent on accessing your private personal and financial data? The answer is simple: Learn from this. Learn how to actively monitor and protect your own credit and identity information.
Who else has your information?
Equifax isn’t the only credit reporting agency in the country; there are dozens of credit bureaus in the U.S., though the three biggest are TransUnion, Experian, and of course Equifax. These are the ones that most banks, landlords and credit card companies turn to for a credit report on prospective applicants.
Your credit rating can have a huge effect on your life, influencing everything from your ability to secure a mortgage or car loan to even getting a job. Legally, you are entitled to one free report from each of the three agencies every year, which you can get at AnnualCreditReport.com.
How to best protect yourself
Clearly, given the Equifax incident, to be a responsible and safe consumer, it may no longer be enough to simply check your credit report once a year.
Actively monitoring your credit history is one of the best ways to ensure your identity and financial information have not been compromised—after all, it’s clear you can’t simply rely on the credit bureaus to ensure the accuracy of your data.
There’s a lot involved in keeping up with your credit activity and if you want to thoroughly monitor your information and prevent identity theft, you’ll likely need help from a third party. That’s what a credit reporting service is for. There are a lot of services out there so to help you make an informed choice, we’re highlighting some of your best options.
Pro: Free information from the big three credit bureaus
Con: Raw data can be time-consuming to navigate and hard to understand
If you're looking for a free, no-frills way to follow your credit movements, AnnualCreditReport.com is the answer. The site provides free credit reports once yearly from each of the big three agencies: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian.
But be warned: the site was set up by those very same three credit bureaus because they were federally mandated to do so; in other words, the site gives you all the info it legally must—and nothing more. And though it gives you your credit report (all your credit activity in detail) it doesn’t give you your credit number (your official score).
The website gives you the raw data related to your credit card and loan payments but does not alert you to any potential errors. It’s up to you to go year-by-year, month-by-month and payment-by-payment to see if there are any possible mistakes or issues. If you don’t have a lot of time on your hands or are a financial novice looking to educate yourself about credit reporting, AnnualCreditReport.com may not be for you.
Realistically speaking, if you really want to stay on top of your credit data and be diligent about possible identity theft you will likely have to shell out for a subscription-based credit monitoring service.
Pro: Easy to use and understand
Con: Not focused on preventing identity theft
Touted as the data point most lenders rely on to rate someone’s creditworthiness, monitoring your FICO score is certainly helpful when tracking whether or not someone is applying for loans or credit cards in your name. While credit reports are notoriously hard to understand and navigate because you must go through ever single payment to check for mistakes, MyFICO does the navigating for you with bold graphics and to-the-point summaries.
This service also tracks all three—TransUnion, Equifax and Experian—credit bureau reports and provides a simple yet comprehensive overview. This service is quite possibly as close as you can get to having your computer hold your hand and gently guide you through your credit history.
The Score Simulator feature is another standout. It straightforwardly shows you how making tweaks to your credit card and loan activities can positively or negative affect your score.
While not primarily marketed as an identity theft tool, MyFICO follows your daily credit transactions and will alert you if there are any suspicious changes. You can also set up alerts that warn you of questionable activity. The user-friendly mobile app has superior functionality so you can monitor your credit on-the-go.
If you’re serious about learning about your credit health and taking control of your score MyFICO won’t let you down, though at $29.95 a month, it’s not cheap.
No credit or identity watchdog service can actually prevent you from becoming a victim of a cyber security theft a-la-Equifax, but it can help you become aware of security compromises so you can act on them instantly and minimize damages. One of the most robust identity theft protection services is LifeLock (whose signups reportedly skyrocketed after the Equifax breach was reported).
Sit down in front of LifeLock’s comprehensive computer dashboard and you’ll have the impression that you’ve entered a vault where you’re the most precious commodity—which, in fact, you are. The service’s priority on security is understandable, given that LifeLock is owned by respected software security leader Symantec.
At all service levels, LifeLock actively monitors your credit information from one of the major credit bureaus and alerts you to any changes. The service also closely scans black market websites and known criminal sites to see if any of your personal data is for sale. If the worst happens and your identity is stolen, they offer funds reimbursement (ranging from $25,000 to $1 million at the highest level) if the loss is due to identity theft.
LifeLock even takes care of less consequential credit annoyances; if you lose your wallet you simply alert them and they’ll assist with the cancelling and replacing of credit and insurance cards for you.
Advantage and Ultimate service also include an all-encompassing alert system with notices ranging from someone applying for an address change in your name, to any unusual bank transactions. The service even scans court documents for illegal activity in your name. Alerts come in the form of SMS, emails or even a call from a live agent (but only at the Ultimate level).
The main difference between the Advantage and Ultimate package is that at the Ultimate level you get annual credit reports and scores from TransUnion, Equifax and Experian (rather than just one with Advantage) and monthly credit tracking information from one agency.