by Susan Ganser, CFP®, LongView Wealth Management

As you may have heard, Equifax, a credit reporting agency based in Atlanta, recently announced a data breach, and we are getting all kinds of questions about this from clients, family, and friends.

Like many of you, I felt that Equifax’s response to the breach was somewhat tone deaf to the seriousness of the event. That being said, we are faced with the reality that there is no way to undo the breach. Even if we could somehow return all of the data to Equifax, the truth is that much of our confidential information has been floating around the internet for some time. The Web has changed many things about how we communicate and what we share (whether it is by choice or by accident), and it doesn’t appear any of us can have a “do over.”

The new reality is that it is only a matter of time until we hear about the next data breach, and we must be vigilant about protecting ourselves. That begs the question:  what exactly are we protecting and how do we go about defending it? That is where the real fun begins. In all likelihood, we should probably be protecting and monitoring things we haven’t even considered yet.

Remember when identity theft was a fake ID so you could buy a drink in a bar before you were legal age? Well, that age of identity theft innocence is long gone. I have been intrigued with the concept of identity theft since the late 1990s when I first learned about shredding documents and credit card applications. Fast forward to now, and identity theft has expanded to include abuses of medical billing, insurance, and tax returns.  Thieves take control of any number of things that they can hold hostage in an effort to be paid a ransom.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan popularized the phrase “trust but verify.” Sadly, I think we now must evolve to “verify then trust.” This is especially true when online or on the phone. So, what can we do? Pay attention and create processes to be vigilant. Is it easy? No, but many good habits are not easy at first.

Here is a list of commonly suggested tactics to help protect you and your data:

  • Create complicated passwords for everything and protect access to those passwords.
  • Change your passwords on a regular basis.
  • Back up things of value that you store on your computer.
  • Shred documents that contain confidential information.
  • Consider opting out of preapproved credit cards by going here or calling 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688). You can opt out for five years on the website or over the phone, but a form is required from the website to opt out permanently.
  • Consider stopping junk mail.
  • Be skeptical any time you are online or on the phone and asked to share confidential data.
  • Monitor medical bills and insurance activity.
  • Monitor your tax filing and confirm refunds are received in the timeframe expected.
  • Monitor account activity (checking, savings, credit cards, HSAs, investment accounts, etc). You can look into using an app like Mint, or some other tool, that will pull all your activity together to make it easier to monitor quickly every day.
  • Request your free annual credit report every year and review it for incorrect and/or unexpected activity. Follow each credit bureau’s procedure to correct errors and contact creditors to resolve activity that isn’t yours.
  • Consider freezing your credit or signing up for a protection service. Before you freeze your credit, be aware that there are pros and cons. For example, you can’t setup your My Social Security Account if your credit is frozen.

You can find additional information on the internet by searching for “credit freeze” or “freeze credit.” In Georgia, check out this link for more information on freezing your credit:

When I entered early adulthood, it was still common for people to balance their checkbook and review their bills for accuracy before paying them. Now, with online bill pay and other automatic payment services, everyone seems to think monitoring financial activity is old school, ancient history. I have lived long enough to learn that sometimes what’s old becomes new again. I think this is one of those cases. It’s time to start monitoring your financial, medical, security, and tax activity on a regular basis. Look at documents for confidential information before dropping them in the trash. If you don’t, someone else will!