Recently, Equifax, one of the major three credit bureaus, experienced a data breach and compromised the credit records of 143 million people. That means that nearly HALF of the US population could be affected.
While there are a plethora of companies who espouse to monitor your credit, I have found many of them to be essentially useless. Case in point: about two years ago, I was given dubious advice about how to maintain and improve my credit score by a mortgage company I had hired for another project. I dutifully followed their advice, only to watch my scores plummet by nearly 50 points in 30 days.
Since then, I have studied, tried and tested nearly all of the major theories about what actually impacts our credit scores and have come up with a method to build and maintain them. I'll publish a series on this later this year. But in the interim, this is what you can do about Equifax...
PROTECT YOUR CREDIT SCORE
While you can enroll in Equifax's free credit monitoring service, as well as check to see if you were affected at Equifax's site, I've never liked working with Equifax. I find their tools cumbersome, their dispute process brainlessly inefficient, and their reports difficult to navigate. Plus, initially signing up for their free credit monitoring service meant you waived your rights to sue them for the data breach. What a scumbag move. "Hey, we lost your data, and we'll help you, but only if you waive your rights to sue us."
Equifax eventually changed their position on waiving your right to sue, but only after large public outcry. When it comes right down to it, frankly, I'd rather not give more information to a company who has already proven they were careless with my data in the first place.
Now chances are that you are already enrolled in credit monitoring service through one of your credit cards. Many credit companies like American Express offer this service. If so, you would be wise to figure out if you already opted in and can look at your history elsewhere. But the problem with credit card based services is that they normally only cover one of the three credit bureaus, yet you'll still need to pull data from all three bureaus in order to get a complete credit score history.
Where to Go From Here
If you haven't already, you can go to AnnualCreditReport.com to get a free copy of your credit report from every one of the major bureaus. While there are many sites that proclaim they can provide your credit report for free, this one is the only site authorized to do so under federal law.
Once you've ordered your reports, take the time to read through them, checking for accuracy and consistency. Are there any accounts you don't recognize? How about addresses or aliases or misspellings of your name? How about places of employment or even your social security number and date of birth? It's time to really go through this with a fine toothed comb. Just don't expect account numbers to line up well. It's rather maddening really, but I've almost never found account numbers that lined up. This is probably a security measure, but it makes this process all the more difficult
When you find a mistake, you can find clear instructions on how to dispute the missing information, in writing, with each of the three major credit bureaus. Just expect this to be a pain n the butt, take forever, and be an administrative slog. Best of all, you'll likely find that when dealing with Equifax they'll ask for the same information you've already sent them more than once, tell you you never sent it, and be completely useless when you call them. You've been warned.
Now, the FTC and other consumer sites have published lists of other steps to take including placing fraud alerts on your credit files, or even freezing them. But these approaches can be quite cumbersome if you're applying for financing, or even buying a new cell phone, and in the case of freezes can sometimes takes weeks to put in place. (Ron Lieber from the New York Times has an interesting article about this.) Within a couple of months I'll publish my own guide on the credit topic, gleaned from nearly two years of testing. Hopefully that will save you my significant headache.
Finally, just remember that while keeping tabs on your credit report can be frustrating, given the value of a strong credit report, it's still easily worth it.