By Gary Brooks, CFP®
The Equifax data breach last month simply added to the already long list of failures by corporate and government entities to protect the public’s sensitive personal information.
It is unsettling to think about the exposures of important personal details and a hassle to take action, which may be useless since it comes after the fact.
Given this trend, we should all assume that our Social Security numbers, name, birth date, address, etc., are public information at this point.
No one is immune to this exposure and everyone is at risk. How much risk? It is hard to say. Identity theft is certainly a prominent issue that has impacted many individuals.
If you are one of the 143 million people impacted by the recent data breach, you should place credit freezes at each credit bureau for your Social Security number (SSN). Equifax is waiving the cost for this. However, there will be a small cost at Trans Union and Experian for this activity. You can alternatively place a fraud alert for your SSN so that you are contacted whenever it’s used to apply for new credit. Unfortunately, Equifax has had a lot of trouble just implementing these requests however. It’s a confusing process. To place this freeze, you’ll need to contact each of these credit bureaus separately.
Additionally, you can monitor your credit report for free at www.annualcreditreport.com. Each rating agency allows one free access each year. If you want to stagger the access every four months, you could get a free report from each agency on a rolling basis to monitor for unusual activity.
It’s important to understand that you aren’t responsible for payment of any fraudulent charges that may show up on your credit cards, but you would certainly have to invest some time in getting the situation resolved.
Just as concerning as your personal data breach is the growing impact of email fraud.
This primarily comes in two forms. One is called “phishing.” This is when you receive email that attempts to entice you to download a bugged file or visit a phony website. Sometimes this tactic intends to load malware on your computer, which can steal valuable information or provide access to your files and email. Phishing can also create an access point for ransomware – allowing criminals to seize control of your computer and demand payment for release.
We have heard of scenarios where cyber criminals have gained access to people’s email accounts, learn who they communicate with and how, and then generate emails that appear to be from these unknowing victims requesting wire transfers or other money movement.
There is no shortage of scams, be it via email, phone and even in-person. As a financial service company, we try to stay vigilant. Moreover, Charles Schwab, the custodian of our clients’ accounts, has dedicated a team to specially focus on these issues and help advisors.
To protect yourself further, be on-guard and question suspicious email or phone requests. Also, consider establishing stronger access credentials for all web sites that you visit, especially for financial needs. If possible, create two-factor authentication for these sites, which requires you to enter a second piece of information that only you have access to at time of log in.
Perhaps, one key lesson that can be drawn from the recent Equifax data breach is that we need to accept the fact that cybersecurity is not just someone else’s responsibilities, but ours as well. Only by being proactive can we help protect ourselves.
If you have security questions, please let us know.
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