On Sept. 7, 2017 credit reporting bureau Equifax announced a data breach that directly exposed the credit card numbers of 209,000 Americans and personal information of 143 million people. This incident potentially can impact even the most careful consumers simply because, well, they have a credit report on file with Equifax.
Seniors, who already are more prone to be victimized by identity theft, may be especially vulnerable to this breach because the hackers gained information that could give them access to Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Equifax’s response compounded the breach. After the company waited six weeks to reveal the breach, the website it set up had an address that was easily impersonated by a “phishing” site, and Equifax was even directing people to go to a fake website. And initially, signing up for Equifax’s free credit monitoring also apparently meant agreeing not to join any class-action lawsuit—although this has since been clarified.
Now for a bit of good news: With so many records exposed, the odds a person’s information will be used for nefarious reasons are low simply because of pure mathematics. That said, there are steps seniors and their families can and should take to protect themselves:
1. See if you are affected.
Equifax has set up a website to let consumers determine if their personal data was exposed in the breach. The site asks for your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number, so be sure to use a computer with a secure connection—not a public computer or via free WiFi, and definitely not on a mobile device.
2. Monitor credit reports.
Whether you are affected or not, you can sign up for a year of free credit monitoring from Equifax, and no, you won’t be signing your life away by doing so. But even with credit monitoring, you should be particularly vigilant in the coming year and beyond.
3. Freeze credit.
Perhaps the strongest step you can take to protect your finances and prevent someone from using your identity is to freeze your credit. This action prevents anyone from opening credit or applying for a loan in your name. Fraud alerts can also be set up to inform you and your loved one of any suspicious activity. Although a credit freeze will require some extra hoops to apply for credit, most seniors aren’t opening new credit cards or taking out loans anyway. Just be sure to sign up for credit monitoring before freezing credit—if you reverse the order, the freeze might pre-emptively block the monitoring. The fee for these actions varies by state and credit bureau but is usually not more than $10.
4. Keep tabs on Social Security benefits.
With so many Social Security numbers exposed, a major concern for seniors is that a cybercriminal attempts to redirect someone’s Social Security benefits into another account. Seniors and their families would then need to prove that the money was stolen—this isn’t something that the government catches and easily fixes. Carefully examine benefit payments every month to be sure they are arriving in your or your loved one’s bank account and the amount hasn’t changed. Keep all documents you receive from the Social Security Administration, and if something ever seems amiss, take action immediately.
5. Pay attention to Medicare statements.
Currently, Medicare numbers are the same as Social Security numbers (this will change in 2018), so a bad guy with a SSN can potentially receive Medicare benefits. This crime often goes unnoticed simply because if a senior doesn’t owe anything, he or she might not think to look at the rest of a statement of benefits. Besides its illegality, this is dangerous because false information enters the victim’s medical record; in an emergency, doctors may use this bad data to make medical decisions that unintentionally can harm the patient.
6. Beware of calls.
The scope and reporting of the Equifax breach surely will inspire bad guys to try taking advantage of unsuspecting seniors with phone and email scams. These scams will be similar to other common phishing scams—someone calls saying a senior’s identity has been compromised and to provide a Social Security number or credit card numbers to confirm. Never, ever provide personal information over the phone when asked. And if you live in a senior community, inform staff of such calls so that they know residents are being targeted and can take action to protect them.
This Equifax breach is indeed a mess; knowledge and diligence is the best way to protect yourself or your loved ones. The Federal Trade Commission has set up a website with more information for all consumers; if you suspect your identity as stolen, visit https://identitytheft.gov to learn more about what you should do next.