The big storms are gone — for now — so America can get back to normal. Except there is, perhaps, a new normal.
We say perhaps because there’s really nothing normal about one of the three major credit-reporting bureaus somehow coughing up the personal information of nearly half the U.S. population.
A cybersecurity attack on Equifax has exposed more than 143 million American consumers to a lifetime of potential grief.
In any other kind of cyber attack, the first thing a potential victim should do is ask the three major reporting companies to check to make sure their personal information is secure. But because the massive hack occurred on one of those three companies, victims now must turn to Equifax’s rivals, Experian and/or TransUnion.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma disrupted the lives of millions of Americans. The hack of Equifax’s databases exposes exponentially more people.
And the outcome could be as personally disastrous as the flooding in Houston or destruction in Florida. The data presumably lost in the Equifax hack includes names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and even driver’s license numbers.
In other words, all the stuff any cyber criminal needs to steal your life, by using your personal data to set up phony accounts to buy all manner of things, including jewelry, cars and homes, for which you eventually will be dunned for payment. And the scofflaws who have the data can simply hold it and use it at any time in the future.
That is not to say it will happen for certain, but the data is now out there, floating in the cyber world.
You don’t necessarily have to surrender to what seems so inevitable. First, criminal use of all 143 million caches of personal data is unlikely. For one thing, the size the the breach is overwhelming, even for skillful computer hackers.
The personal-finance website WalletHub offers good advice for a pro-active defense against hackers, and a lot of it is just plain, old common sense in this age of personal data being tossed around like a carton of eggs in a delivery truck roll-over. Here’s how:
Sign up for 24/7 credit monitoring. You can do this with the two as-yet-unhacked credit-reporting companies, or with most major U.S. banks.
Avail yourself of two-factor authentication offered on most personal computers and smart phones.
When using your computer or smart phone, never click on emails and/or links to other sites, unless you are certain who sent the email, or where the offered link will take you. Clicking on blind links is like leaving your front door open for burglars. Also, be extra careful downloading attachments to messages and emails.
The obvious first step is to change your access passwords. And if you receive an email verifying you have reset your password, that’s a red flag that a hacking procedure has begun.
Check your personal financial accounts daily, including credit card and bank account balances. If something isn’t right, contact the card company and/or bank immediately.
Having been through all this in one form or another in recent years, we can tell you it is less than zero on the fun meter. And when someone steals your personal identity for criminal purposes, it is the same as coming home after work and finding your house trashed, and all your worldly possessions gone. It is a devastating personal violation.
The Equifax hack does not necessarily mean your ID will be stolen, but it makes that possible. Be ready for it.