Fight off the Equifax info thieves with these tips

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Consumer credit-reporting agency Equifax said a breach of its computer systems had exposed the Social Security numbers and birthdates of up to 143 million U.S. consumers.

Forty-four percent of American consumers have been put at risk by the cybersecurity attack carried out against credit-reporting agency Equifax. Now, what do we do?

Discovered on July 29 but acknowledged by Equifax only Thursday afternoon, the stolen information (some taken as early as May) includes the names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and, in some instances, the driver’s license numbers of an estimated 143 million U.S. residents. In addition, credit card numbers for about 209,000 U.S. consumers and “certain dispute documents with personal identifying information” for about 182,000 U.S. consumers were also accessed, the company said.

To put a lid on the potentially erupting volcano, Equifax has established a dedicated website, www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, to help consumers determine whether their information has been compromised and to sign up for credit-file monitoring and identity-theft protection, free for a year. (Exactly a month ago, Equifax acquired ID Watchdog, an “award-winning” identity-theft protection and resolution company.)

After entering your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security number, a preliminary tap on Equifax’s “TrustedID Premier” service may offer some vague reassurance. A personal test Friday morning yielded this message: “Based on the information provided, we believe that your personal information was not impacted by this incident.” But that tracking may be reflective only of active financial transactions between May and July.

In fact, a hacker newly armed with a Social Security number could have obtained online access to financial accounts in early August yet not immediately tried to move funds about. Gaining access and then attacking months later is a common hacker ploy to avoid raising suspicion.

Be forewarned: By clicking on the “Enroll” button at the bottom of the page for your free year of TrustedID Premier, you might be opting out of participation in a class-action lawsuit if you apply the product’s free credit-file monitoring and identity-theft protection, which compel arbitration. One class-action lawsuit has already been filed against Equifax.

What else can you do to guard against the threats?

• Check your credit reports. The federal government guarantees everyone a free annual credit report from the three major bureaus — Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax — though some experts are suggesting you skip the last one this time. You can get yours at annualcreditreport.com

• Be on the lookout for new accounts you didn’t open, late payments on debts you don’t recognize, and other suspicious activity. (It might be as seemingly innocuous at first as a dating-service account being hacked.)

• Turn on “Credit Freeze” and/or Fraud Alert: The first prevents someone from opening credit cards in your name and requires you to register a PIN number that then must be used to unfreeze the account. The latter requires a credit-card company to verify your identity before opening an account. To do this, call Equifax at 1-800-349-9960 (to freeze credit) or 1-888-766-0008 (to report fraud); Experian at 1-888-397-3742 (freeze and fraud); and TransUnion at 1-888-909-8872 (freeze) or 1-800-680-7289 (fraud).

• Change passwords. This is especially important if you apply the same or similar passwords and security questions/answers on multiple accounts.

• Enable two-factor authentication: This process will send a text message or call to your phone with a code you must type in before the account will open. It guards against a data thief who might now have the answers to your security questions.

• Watch out for suspicious emails and links: Phishing for trouble, scammers will exploit the breach by sending out fake “updates” from Equifax or “better enter and change your password now” warnings. Official Equifax notifications will come through the mail. Or you can contact the company at 866-447-7559.

Consumers “will definitely see more identity theft” as a result of the Equifax data breach, said Kenneth Brevoort, section chief, credit information and policy, at the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He was presenting a paper at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank on Friday, as part of the launch of the bank’s new Consumer Finance Institute.

“You’ll probably also see more people seeking out credit-repair services,” he added, noting that the CFPB recently shut down a California-based credit-repair shop for falsely guaranteeing increases in consumers’ credit scores of as much as 100 points.

A prime credit score ranges between 690 and 850 points, and crossing over into a higher credit score can lead to lower borrowing costs on mortgages, insurance policies, credit cards, and student loans.

Staff writer Erin Arvedlund contributed to this article.