Color of Money: Data breaches are no laughing matter
WASHINGTON -- The epic Equifax data breach could make for some creative Halloween costumes. If there's a contest, I bet you'll win if you dress up like a horrifying hacker holding stolen credit reports.
Editorial cartoonists have certainly captured the rampant sense of dread and fear. Signe Wilkinson's depiction of the compromise of 145.5 million consumer files by Equifax reflects the attitude of many folks I've been hearing from. The cartoon portrays two people buying coffee. The first customer is paying with plastic and says, "I'm afraid my credit card will be hacked!" The other says, "I'm not."
Why isn't the second customer worried?
She's buying her coffee with cash.
A cartoon from Nick Anderson speaks volumes. In it, an elderly couple is in the office of an Equifax executive whom they tell, "We're dropping your creditability rating to zero."
The hole Equifax left in its computer system exposed Social Security, credit card and driver's license numbers. Hackers also got addresses and birth dates.
The breach left people afraid and in search of information. Here are some recent questions I received. I relayed the first two to an Equifax spokesperson.
Q: Did the hackers in the Equifax breach gain access to my credit- freeze PIN number?
Equifax: The PINs associated with security freezes were not impacted by the breach.
Q: My son lives in Spain with his wife and baby. All three have Social Security numbers. I asked him to go to the Equifax site to see whether their info had been hacked. He emailed me that the site was blocked to people overseas. Is this the case?
Equifax: No, the site is not blocked to people overseas. However, there are some situations where an IP address may be restricted, due to where the person lives.
Q: I took advantage of the Equifax-offered credit lock. However, from my research, it appears that I would also need to lock my credit with Experian and TransUnion, and it does not seem that Equifax covers me for those costs (Experian is $25 a month!) Do you have any suggestions or know how others are dealing with this?
Michelle: Right now, Equifax is waiving the fee to get a freeze, but it only covers your file at that bureau. You can also get a free lock on your credit file at Equifax.
But one freeze or credit lock does not work for all. You have to get a freeze or lock at each credit bureau.
To get access to the free freeze at Equifax, go to www.equifaxsecurity2017.com. Be sure to elect for a freeze, not a lock. You can't do both.
Consumer experts advise opting for a freeze because the rules for it are state regulated. A lock is a feature offered by the credit bureaus, which essentially does the same thing as a freeze, but the rules of how it works are dictated by the credit bureau.
You can freeze your Experian report at www.experian.com/freeze/center.html. Do the same with TransUnion at
While you're at it, also freeze your report at a fourth, smaller bureau, Innovis: www.innovis.com/personal/securityFreeze.
You might also consider putting a freeze on at the consumer agency ChexSystems: http://wapo.st/2l0qEwv. This is the bureau that financial institutions use to verify that you have a good history of managing bank or credit-union accounts.
Q: I have had a freeze for many years with the three major credit bureaus on my wife and myself. Should I still sign up for Equifax's free TrustedID Premier monitoring service?
Michelle: This question brings up why a freeze is better than credit monitoring.
With a credit freeze, a new creditor can't get access to your credit file. Without being able to view your credit report, the lender isn't likely to approve your credit application.
A credit monitoring service reports identity theft incidents to you after the fact. In other words, the damage could already be done. You might get a notice that someone is looking at your credit file, and you could have time to act before credit is opened in your name. But with the instant granting of credit today, notice from a credit monitoring service might not come soon enough.
Q: I registered for the TrustedID service and Equifax said I should receive an email within a few days and that I should be patient. I'd read elsewhere that it could take quite a while. Well, I received the email to finalize the registration within a few minutes! Should I be concerned?
Michelle: No, count yourself fortunate. Some people are reporting no delay. Others are still having trouble signing up.
The cartoons help provide some comic relief. But the questions I continue to get from scared consumers are no laughing matter.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.
(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group