NEW YORK(Reuters) – If you were not yet convinced that your personal data was at risk from cyber thieves, the latest breach of 143 million consumer records at credit bureau Equifax should scare you straight.
Nick Clements, co-founder of personal finance site magnifymoney.com, goes about his daily life just assuming that his data will be stolen at some point. The irony is not lost on him that the latest incident involves a company tasked with tracking people’s credit and selling identity theft protection services.
“If this wakes people up that their data is at risk, that’s good,” Clements said.
You can check to see if you were personally affected by the Equifax breach by entering in part of your Social Security number at equifaxsecurity2017.com. Or just assume that you were.
Whether or not your data was compromised through this, or some other means, the instructions for how to live in the shadow of identity theft are still the same.
“It’s important that people don’t panic that this info is out there. It’s also important that they don’t take it too lightly, either,” said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at creditcards.com.
The first step Schulz recommends is to get your credit reports from the three bureaus – Equifax, TransUnion and Experian – and make sure all of the information is correct. You are due one free credit report per year through the bureaus (annualcreditreport.com).
Next, figure out how to keep an eye on all your accounts. For those who used to balance a checkbook, the process will seem familiar – you need to make sure that everything the bank says you paid for, you actually did.
If you have given up this sort of oversight, check your transactions online frequently. “The more often you check, the easier it is to do, because you have fewer things to go through,” said Schulz.
Clements says he has alerts set up from his accounts and gets a text after every transaction more than a penny. “Some say that’s overkill, but the minute a charge goes through that I didn’t authorize, I know about it,” he said.
Monitoring so many accounts might get tedious, which may prompt some people to trim the number of accounts they have, particularly bank accounts at different institutions where they would have multiple log-ins to manage and too many credit cards.
“It will make your life less hectic,” said Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance.
The most important account to manage and protect is your email, which is a gateway to all your financial accounts, including your tax records.
“Make sure that’s the most difficult account for other people to access,” said Kaiser.
Having multi-factor authentication that requires a code to be sent to you via your phone, or another device always in your possession, will help thwart both cyber criminals and more common thieves who know you personally.
Another option is credit monitoring programs, which are often offered free for a period of time for those affected by a data breach. Kaiser says there is no need to sign up with more than one if you are already enrolled for free due to one breach or another.
Ongoing monitoring for a monthly fee starting around $10 is also an option, and the service may also may come in a package with identify theft resolution, which Clements finds valuable. Otherwise, if something goes wrong, you will have to go through a long checklist of steps to remedy the situation, which is available at identitytheft.gov, a leading resource for information.
“It really is all about being diligent on the back end, because there are so many things that you can’t control,” said Schulz.
Editing by Lauren Young and Dan Grebler