By Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall
Two months ago, I began my column with the lament that consumer fraud has become so common that many people just don’t pay enough attention to protecting themselves. However, the public is now paying attention. About the same time that I wrote those words, one of the largest credit reporting agencies in the country detected a major data breach, potentially affecting 143 million people.
The Equifax data breach is unparalleled for the amount of personal data potentially exposed. While last year’s hack of email provider Yahoo! could have affected nearly 10 times as many people, the Equifax breach potentially places much more personal data at risk. For this reason, you should be taking steps to protect your information.
Not surprisingly, opportunistic scammers have also sought to take advantage of public uncertainty over the Equifax data breach by sending out fake emails and robocalls pretending to be from Equifax. They often ask consumers to verify personal information, including one’s date of birth and Social Security number. You should be aware that Equifax will not attempt to contact the public by emails, texts or phone calls.
The Federal Trade Commission offers the following tips for consumers.
* Don’t give out your personal information. Don’t provide any personal or financial information unless you’ve initiated the call and it’s to a phone number you know is correct.
* Don’t trust caller ID. Scammers frequently spoof their numbers so it looks like they are calling from a particular company, government agency or law enforcement, even when they’re not.
* If you get a robocall, hang up. Don’t press 1 to speak to a live operator or any other key to take your number off the list. If you respond by pressing any number, it will probably just lead to more robocalls.
* If you gave your personal information to an imposter, it’s time to change any compromised passwords, account numbers or security questions.
* Verify your credit reports with all three credit bureaus, Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian, by visiting https://www.annualcreditreport.com.
* Monitor existing credit accounts closely. Check bank and credit card statements for unauthorized charges.
* Consider whether you want to sign up for credit monitoring services.
* Consider placing a freeze on your credit to make it harder for someone to open a new account in your name. You’ll have to temporarily lift the freeze before you apply for a new credit card, cell phone or any service that requires a credit check. If you decide not to place a credit freeze, at least consider placing a fraud alert on your credit.
* Try to file your taxes early to help prevent scammers from doing so in your name. Tax Identity Theft happens when someone uses your Social Security number to get a tax refund or a job. Respond right away to letters from the IRS.
As Alabama Attorney General, I joined with over 30 fellow Attorneys General from across the country in asking Equifax to halt its fee-based credit monitoring services to consumers as a result of the data breach and to extend the period of signup for free credit monitoring until at least January 31, 2018. The company has agreed to do so.
I also objected to Equifax’s apparent use of its own data breach as an opportunity to sell its services to data breach victims. Furthermore, I objected to consumers being forced to pay for any security freezes to their credit accounts as they attempt to protect themselves from Equifax’s data breach. At a minimum Equifax should be taking steps to reimburse consumers who incur fees to completely freeze their credit.
In response to complaints from consumers who have suffered long wait times to reach Equifax’s call center, I asked Equifax to make its consumer hotline available 24 hours a day and properly staffed to ensure shorter wait times.
For more information about the Equifax breach, visit Equifax’s website, www.equifaxsecurity2017.com or contact their call center at 1-866-447-7559.
Alabamians may report suspected consumer fraud by calling the Attorney General’s consumer protection hotline at 1-800-392-5658 or online at http://www.ago.alabama.gov and click on “Consumer Protection.” To file an online complaint, use the link: http://www.ago.alabama.gov/Page-Consumer-Protection-File-a-Complaint-01.