Family Checkbook: What to do if you're worried about Equifax breach

Family Checkbook: What to do if you're worried about Equifax breach


In the last few years, we've had data breaches at the IRS, grocery stores, retail stores and now a major credit bureau. After much thought, I've come to accept that my Social Security number is no longer private, and won't be for the rest of my life. In addition, because I care more about someone using my identity for financial gain than anyone else, it's up to me to monitor my financial accounts.

While I can't stop identity theft, I can take steps to minimize damage. Many strategies are available and each person must decide which ones are best for them.

One of the best tools we have to spot identity theft is to check our credit reports. You need to check your report from each of the three credit bureaus for it to be effective. You can check them free, once a year for each agency, at

However, you may want to pay to see them more often. Each time you check, it will cost between $10 and $15. If you checked all three, three times a year, it would cost you about $100.

Paying for a credit-monitoring service is an option, but these services have both pros and cons. Credit-monitoring systems will alert you to a change in your report — for example, if there's a request for a new credit card.

The disadvantages of credit monitoring is it can be expensive: typically $120-$200 a year. Also, when you sign up for a credit-monitoring service, you are likely giving the company permission to use your information for marketing purposes.

If your Social Security number is part of a data breach, you can place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit report. Report this to one of the credit bureaus and it will apply to all three. When you have an alert on your report, a business must verify your identity before it issues credit, so it may try to contact you. Plus, you get a free credit report from each bureau.

With the recent data breach at Equifax, one of the three credit bureaus, many people are wondering whether they should put a "freeze" on their credit report. A freeze stops the company from releasing your credit report or any information from it, except in certain exceptions. For example, companies you currently have loans with and collection agencies can still receive your report.

However, freezing your credit report may not be realistic for everyone. If you want to borrow money (for example, apply for a new credit card), you have to lift the freeze first. In addition, because credit reports are used by businesses other than lenders, the freeze also may interfere with changing insurance policies, renting housing and signing up for new utilities or phone service.

It typically costs $10 to lift the freeze temporarily or permanently. Placing the freeze may cost you $10 as well. However, if you're a victim of identity theft (which requires a police report or other documentation) or at least 65 years old, it's free. Lifting a freeze may take up to three business days. If you're a person who moves often, this may not be the best option for you due to the cost and inconvenience.

In contrast, if you're an older adult without a lot of change in your life, then a credit freeze may be helpful. To freeze your credit report, you need to contact each of the credit bureaus, and each will charge a fee. If you're married, you need to freeze both your and your spouse's credit reports to protect your identity. For detailed information about how to place a credit freeze, go to the Illinois Attorney General's resource at

The above strategies help minimize the risk of someone borrowing money in your name. However, monitor all your financial accounts regularly, including saving and investing accounts. If you have any concerns, contact your financial institution. You can use text alerts to monitor your financial accounts; ask your financial institution about this. Overall, stay alert with your finances!

If you find learning about finances interesting, then you might like to become a Money Mentor. Our next volunteer training starts October 30th. Visit to learn more.

Kathy Sweedler is a consumer economics educator at the University of Illinois Extension. Contact her at 217-333-7672 or email

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