When significant data breaches happen where high risk data is at stake, there’s often a lot of talk about credit reports. Some companies that have been hacked may even be required to provide credit monitoring to their customers as part of their breach notification requirements. Whether the breached company provides credit monitoring or not, security experts recommend you check your credit reports for suspicious activity. To protect your identity, they also recommend you freeze your credit. Here’s what that means and why it’s important.
What’s a credit report? Do I have one?
In the U.S., if you’ve ever rented an apartment, opened a bank account, or applied for a credit card or a loan, you likely have a credit report.
In fact, you have three credit reports. There are three credit-reporting bureaus in the United States: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Each one holds a report on you that contains personal information about your credit history. Your credit reports contain:
- Personal identifying information, such as your name, past and current addresses, Social Security number and date of birth.
- Current and past credit accounts, such as credit cards, mortgages, student loans and auto loans.
- Inquiry information, which are instances in which you’ve applied for new loans or credit cards.
- Bankruptcies and collection information.
- Your credit report does not include your credit score.
Why you should check your credit reports once a year
Having your information exposed in a data breach puts you at risk of identity theft. If someone steals your identity and tries to open new cards or loans in your name, it will appear on your credit report. Each bureau may have slightly different information, which is why it’s important to check all three regularly.
By law, you are entitled to one free credit report a year from each of the three credit bureaus. You can request your credit reports at annualcreditreport.com. This is the only official and truly free website to obtain your reports. You can also call Experian, TransUnion and Equifax directly or request your reports by mail.
Checking your own credit report will not affect your score.
You will never be penalized for checking your own report or your own credit score. And checking your report does not impact your score in any way. Experian, TransUnion and Equifax may offer paid identity monitoring packages or charge for access to your credit score, but it’s always free to check your report once a year.
What to look for to spot signs of identity theft
When you receive your credit reports from Experian, TransUnion and Equifax, review them carefully. These are long, dense documents that can be overwhelming, especially if you have a long credit history. Look for accounts or addresses you don’t recognize or any information that is inaccurate. You have a right to correct any inaccurate information on your record with the credit bureau. Instructions for how to initiate corrections can be found on your report. It’s important not to let inaccuracies linger as they may lower your score or be difficult to clear later when you need a clean record, such as applying for a mortgage. Make sure:
- All the accounts listed are ones you personally opened.
- All addresses listed and your employer are correct.
- Your balances and credit history are correct.
- All hard credit inquiries are from loans or credit cards you applied for. Soft inquiries may be listed, which are from pre-approved credit card offers. These do not affect your score.
If you are concerned that you might be a victim of identity theft, report it and get help from the Federal Trade Commision at identitytheft.gov.
Block unauthorized access to your credit report with a credit freeze
Placing a freeze on your credit report is the most effective method to stop identity thieves in their tracks. It’s completely free with all three bureaus and will not affect your credit cards, credit report, or credit score. You can continue using your cards as you were before.
Freezing your credit report means only you can apply for new cards or loans. No one else will be able to do this in your name. It’s like putting a lock on your credit report, and only you have the key. You can unlock (or unfreeze) your credit report at any time. For example, you may want to open a new credit card. You can temporarily lift the freeze to do so, then refreeze your credit report again after.
Federal legislation requires credit-reporting agencies to offer free credit freezes and unfreezes. To freeze your credit report with Experian, TransUnion and Equifax, call them directly or do it on their websites. You may be asked to create a PIN code or they may generate one for you. Keep this code safe, because it’s the one you’ll use if you need to unlock your credit. A password manager is a great place to save your PIN codes.
Stay informed about data breaches with Firefox Monitor
Firefox Monitor is our way of helping you fight to keep your data safe. The first step in being safe online is knowing if you are at risk. Firefox Monitor checks your email address against many known data breaches and can alert you if your email has been tied to a breach. When you join Firefox, you’ll be able to monitor multiple email addresses, and keep track with a dashboard for all your accounts, monitoring and alerts. Our interests are your interests: helping you feel safe and secure online so you can make the most of the internet.
Also published on Medium.