AMES, Iowa -- Although security experts continue to warn about the dangerous consequences of the Equifax data breach, many Iowans have yet to take action to determine whether their personal and financial information has been compromised. From mid-May through July 2017, hackers accessed a variety of personal information – including Social Security numbers, birthdates, addresses and driver's license numbers – of more than 1 million Iowans, placing them at risk for identity theft, fraud and financial disaster.
They are among more than 145 million Americans whose sensitive personal information was exposed due to a security lapse involving patching software, according to Equifax, a major credit reporting company. The hackers also stole credit card numbers for about 209,000 people and dispute documents with personal identifying information for about 182,000 people.
“We are encouraging Iowa consumers to take the first step and visit Equifax’s website, www.equifaxsecurity2017.com, to determine if their information has been exposed,” said Suzanne Bartholomae, an assistant professor in human development and family studies and family financial management state specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
The initial shock of the news has passed and a national phone survey found that about a quarter of Americans reviewed their credit scores or reports within two weeks of Equifax announcing the breach. However, many Iowans may not be checking whether they have been affected by the breach or taking the proper steps to protect themselves from fraud.
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Carol Ehlers is one of the ISU Extension and Outreach family finance specialists who are sharing resources and teaching a program called “UnSCAM Yourself … Responding to the Equifax Data Breach.” She serves 12 counties in Northwest Iowa.
“In multiple ISU Extension and Outreach workshops I’ve taught since the Equifax breach, typically only 10 to 20 percent of participants had checked if their information was impacted. I have had comments from consumers that they dismissed the news reports about this data breach because they didn’t have a credit card with Equifax, so it is important to correct consumer misunderstanding about the credit bureau’s cybersecurity incident,” Ehlers said.
ISU Extension and Outreach has developed a public website with resources and a checklist – “Equifax Data Breach: Steps to Protect” – so consumers can see how the breach affects them and steps they can take to protect their information from being misused. To access this information, visit the website at https://blogs.extension.iastate.edu/moneytips/security-breach/.
“With a data breach of this nature, Iowans need to realize that the compromised information may not be put into play by unsavory individuals for a long time. This highlights the importance of not only being vigilant about checking for unusual activity on their credit reports and with financial accounts, but also taking steps that offer long-term solutions, such as credit monitoring and freezes,” said Bartholomae.
Equifax is offering free credit freezes until Jan. 31, 2018. The company also will refund fees to anyone who already paid for freezes since Sept. 7, 2017, when it announced the breach.
“A freeze means that no one, including you, can access your credit file until you unfreeze it, using a PIN or passphrase. That makes it harder for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name,” Bartholomae said.
Because data breaches are occurring with greater frequency at a range of organizations, consumers will benefit by getting into the habit of checking their credit reports, Bartholomae noted. By law, consumers are entitled to one free copy of their credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide credit reporting companies. Iowa consumers can order a free copy of their report online from annualcreditreport.com.
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