Fraud alerts, credit freezes and other steps to take in the wake of Equifax data breach

This July 21, 2012, photo shows Equifax Inc., offices in Atlanta. Credit monitoring company Equifax says a breach exposed social security numbers and other data from about 143 million Americans. The Atlanta-based company said Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, that "criminals" exploited a U.S. website application to access files between mid-May and July of this year. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Today Equifax has new language on its website about signing up for the credit file monitoring and identity theft protection service it's offering in the wake of the widespread data breach announced last week.

The company took heat from consumers and lawmakers Thursday over an arbitration clause in its terms of use that waived the users right to take legal action against Equifax. On Friday, the company issued a clarification statement, saying the mandatory arbitration clause did not apply to the data breach incident.

New language on the site now makes it clear that signing up for the TrustedID Premier service will not automatically take away your right to sue Equifax, and will not automatically enroll you in the service once the year of free service is over.

If you're already signed up for a credit monitoring service you should be fine without the Equifax product, although many experts say as long as it's free you may as well take advantage.

Whether or not you decide to enroll, here's list of steps that cyber security and privacy experts say we should all be taking.

Step 1: Go to the Federal Trade Commission website. This is your command center for what to do in any I-D theft or data breach situation.

It's also where you'll find Step 2: consider placing a fraud alert on your credit files. You only need to contact one of the three major credit bureaus. They in turn must notify the other two.

A credit file Fraud Alert flags your file, and requires businesses to verify your identity before issuing credit. Some businesses may call you.

But since fraud alerts often fall short, especially in cases like this where criminals have extensive personal information, consider putting a Security Freeze on your credit file. That's step 3.

A credit freeze restricts access to your credit report (with a few exceptions) and blocks any new credit in your name until the freeze is removed. You won't be able to get a loan, or even add a name to your accounts, until you temporarily lift the freeze, or remove it altogether.

Starting or lifting a credit freeze typically costs $10 in Washington State, unless you're 65 years or older, in which case it's free.

Because of the latest security breach, Equifax is waiving the credit freeze fee if you're part of the stated 143 million person breach, and enroll in TrustedID for the free year of credit monitoring and identity theft protection.

Consumer advocate groups say that's not good enough. In a statement responding to the breach, the WashPIRG Foundation called on Equifax to also cover consumer costs of credit freezes with TransUnion and Experian.

"Equifax should alert all affected people to the benefits of credit freezes and offer them to all Americans for free of charge with all three major national credit bureaus," said WashPIRG spokeswoman Elise Orlick. "For people who don’t want credit reezes, Equifax should offer free credit monitoring for an unlimited amount of time."

Orlick emphasized that while the protection Equifax offers lasts for a year, the information that is out there does not have a shelf life.

Step 4: Get your free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies and review your credit file. By law, every American consumer is entitled to a free report once a year from each of the 3 major credit reporting agencies. Most of us don't get them. As a result, many consumers remain clueless to inaccurate information until it dashes or delays their efforts to get a car loan or mortgage.

Since Equifax, Experian and TransUnion can each have different information about your credit history, it's smart to stagger the free reports and get one every 4 months. That way you have an ongoing snapshot of your credit file and can correct mistakes throughout the year.

But only go through to get that free report. There are a number of websites that use "sound alike" names and aim to enroll you in an ongoing membership. If you're asked to provide credit card information, you're on the wrong site for your annual free credit report.

If you forget the name of the official site, always go to the Federal Trade Commission website and you'll find the link.

As a result of the data breach, Equifax is now the subject of at least 23 proposed class action lawsuits, including one here in the Seattle area.

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