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Color of Money: Equifax data breach could have a silver lining

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- Whatever your political affiliation, there is now one financial issue on which we can all agree.

We need Congress to pass legislation allowing consumers to temporarily freeze and unfreeze their own credit files at no charge to help thwart identity theft.

In case you missed it, the credit-reporting agency Equifax recently discovered that criminals had gained access to people's names, Social Security numbers, birthdates, addresses and, in some instances, driver's license numbers.

In all, the hack could potentially impact 143 million U.S. consumers.

Stop. Just take that in.

More than 40 percent of all Americans are facing the possibility of identity theft. Their financial lives could turn into a nightmare.

With the information stolen from Equifax, identity thieves can theoretically access your bank account, file a tax return, open utility or mobile phone accounts, buy a car or even get medical treatment using your health insurance. They can also apply for a credit card. The hackers have pretty much all they need to steal your good name and live it up.

If you've been following the Equifax fiasco, you've probably heard by now that you should protect yourself by freezing your credit files.

A credit freeze is much more powerful than putting a fraud alert on your credit report. It's the difference between a criminal getting into Fort Knox and breaking into a small metal lockbox.

With a fraud alert, a business must verify your identity before it issues credit. But alerts are often overlooked.

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