Hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean islands along with a nuclear nutjob in North Korea make for ominous headlines. Just when you think things can’t get much worse, Equifax says, “Hold my beer.” Not to downplay ongoing and lurking disasters, but for most Americans, Equifax’s data breach could be more troubling. “What nature doesn’t do to us will be done by our fellow man.” (Sheldon Harnick, The Merry Minuet, covered by The Kingston Trio)
Yes, there are steps you should take to protect your finances, but realize the credit reporting industry is lightly regulated and the three largest companies, Equifax, TransUnion and Experian PLC spend heavily to keep it that way. In just the first six months of 2017, they spent as much as they did in 2016. The Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 12 that House Republican Barry Loudermilk of Georgia sponsored a bill eliminating punitive damages against credit reporting companies.
The scope of this data breach was remarkable, including names, addresses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and driver’s license information. In the Information Age, we have never had anything approaching this magnitude. Consumer experts recommend putting a credit freeze with all three firms. Credit freezes prevent a new creditor from accessing a consumer’s credit report. Good idea, we all agree, except that the data breach occurred over a month ago. While better late than never, it is the financial equivalent of closing the barn door after the horse is out. By coincidence I’m sure, three senior Equifax executives unloaded shares of company stock before the announcement.
A credit freeze may not be practical for everyone. If you are buying or renting a house, it takes a few days to remove a credit freeze. In tight housing markets, that constraint weighs heavily. A credit freeze prohibits you from financing a car or receiving a new credit card. Adding insult to injury, taking off a credit freeze has a nominal charge. Consumers should be able to remove a credit freeze immediately within a narrow window, 24 hours for example, and with no fees.
People in wealthier zip codes will likely find themselves at higher risk. Rosemary Beach, you’ve been warned. These crooks don’t have to act immediately; the danger will be ongoing. Monitor your credit cards, bank and brokerage accounts. Consider having your credit monitored; fees range from $10-$30 monthly. File your income tax return as soon as possible to prevent a false filing. No bank or financial institution will contact you by phone or email to “verify” personal data. Never click on a link in an email or open an unsolicited email attachment. Monitor your credit report with all three agencies. Go to www.annualcreditreport.com for a no-charge report, report any inaccuracies. Lock your finances like an automobile or the front door.
You can’t always get what you want, but Buz Livingston, CFP can help figure out what you need. For specific recommendations, visit livingstonfinancial.net or come by the office in Redfish Village, 2050 Scenic 30A, M-1 Suite 230.