Chances are, you are one of the 143 million Americans whose sensitive personal information was compromised in the recent data breach at Equifax, one of the three major credit reporting agencies. The data breach began in mid-May and was discovered by the company on July 29. Unfortunately, they did not announce the breach until September 7, something for which they are being sharply criticized. According to Equifax, the hackers accessed names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, credit card numbers, and in some instances driver’s license numbers. If you have not yet done so, I recommend taking the following five steps:
- Find out if your information was compromised. Visit Equifax’s website, click the “Potential Impact” tab, and follow the instructions. Make sure you are on a secure computer on an encrypted network connection because you will have to enter some identifying information. Even if your information was not compromised, I recommend taking taking the remaining four steps just to be safe.
- Check your credit reports from all three major credit reporting agencies. The three major credit reporting agencies are Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Visit annualcreditreport.com to access your credit reports for free. I do not recommend visiting other sites to access your credit report, as hackers have been known to create fake web sites. If you see any accounts or activity you do not recognize, visit IdentityTheft.gov to find out what to do.
- Consider placing a credit freeze on your credit files. A credit freeze can help prevent someone from opening a new account in your name. A credit freeze will not affect your credit score. It will also not prevent you from opening new accounts, applying for a job, or applying for insurance; however, you will need to temporarily lift the freeze. In South Carolina it is against the law for a company to charge you to place a freeze or to lift a freeze on your credit file, so keep that in mind if the company attempts to charge you for these services. Also note that a “fraud alert” is not the same as a credit freeze. To learn how to place a credit freeze on your accounts, keep reading.
- Monitor your credit card and bank accounts for suspicious activity. A credit freeze will not prevent someone from making fraudulent charges to your existing accounts, so it is important to continue monitoring your accounts for suspicious activity. You can do this by reviewing your transactions on your financial institution's web site or by reviewing your monthly statements. If you're a client of Palmetto Coast, you can track your bank account and credit card transactions on your personal financial planning site. Your site is encrypted and non-transactional, meaning no trades or transactions can be initiated from the site. Transactions are imported daily from your existing financial institutions, but information such as your Social Security number or account number is not. It can be a convenient way for you to monitor your credit card and bank account activity in one place. It provides the additional benefit of categorizing your monthly expenses, which can allow for more accurate financial projections like retirement income planning or estate planning. Furthermore, since it's not tied to a particular financial institution or bank, if you ever change banks, you won't lose access to the transactions on your financial planning site.
- File your taxes promptly. As soon as you receive all of your tax information, file your tax return. Keep in mind, if you have investment accounts, you may not receive tax reports on those accounts until late February or early March. If you receive correspondence from the IRS in the mail, respond right away. And remember, the IRS never calls you.
How do I place a credit freeze on my credit reports?
Contact each of the nationwide credit reporting companies. You can initiate a credit freeze online or over the phone. Again, if you are a South Carolina resident, there should be no fee for this service, just be sure to select "credit freeze" or "security freeze," which is different than a fraud alert or identity theft protection program.
You will be required to supply your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number and other personal information. For example, when I called, I had to provide the exact amount of my monthly mortgage payment as well as an old address.
Once you place a freeze on your account, each credit reporting company will send you a confirmation letter containing a unique PIN or password. Keep this PIN or password in a safe place because you will need it if you choose to lift or remove the freeze. It may sound a bit inconvenient, but it is almost certainly not as inconvenient as dealing with the consequences should you become a victim of identity theft.
What steps do you take to ensure my money is safe?
As a client of Palmetto Coast Wealth Management, you expect your money to be safe from theft or fraud. Here are some steps we take to ensure the highest level of security for our clients:
- We never take custody of your money. All investment accounts are maintained in your name with one of the leading independent "custodians" like Charles Schwab, Fidelity, or TD Ameritrade. When you write a check to fund your account, you'll make the check payable to your custodian - not to us.
- These custodians all carry SIPC insurance, which protects investors like you against fraud or insolvency.
- You receive statements directly from your custodian and a confirmation each time there is activity in your account. If you are signed up for e-delivery, you receive your statements and confirmation of all account activity via an email containing a link to the custodian's secure web site.
- If and when you request a distribution from your account, your custodian only sends funds to you at your address of record or to your bank account on file.
- You have 24/7 access to view your accounts, including all account activity, online directly through your custodian's web site. For example, if your investments are held at Schwab, you can access your accounts from Schwab's secure web site.
Please note the following links will take you away from our web site to a new web site.
For more information on encrypted networks: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0014-tips-using-public-wi-fi-networks
If you believe you may have been a victim of identity theft: IdentityTheft.gov