NEW YORK (AP) —
A day after credit-reporting company Equifax disclosed that “criminals” had stolen vital data about 143 million Americans, it had somehow managed to leave much of the public in the dark about their exposure, how they should protect themselves and what Equifax planned to do for those affected.
The breach is unquestionably serious. It exposed crucial pieces of personal data that criminals could use to commit identity theft, from Social Security numbers and birthdates to address histories and legal names.
That data — the “crown jewels of personal information,” in the words of independent credit analysts John Ulzheimer — can’t be changed, and once it’s in circulation, it’s basically out there forever.
But Equifax’s response has satisfied almost no one.
Consumers complained of jammed phone lines and uninformed representatives. An Equifax website set up to help people determine their exposure looked like a scam to some, and provided inconsistent and unhelpful information to others. Congress planned hearings.
Anders Ohlsson, a 47-year-old technical manager in Scotts Valley, California, called a hotline multiple times and was disconnected; entered the last six digits of his Social Security number into Equifax’s emergency website; and finally spoke with a call center manager. He still doesn’t know whether his information has been compromised.
“I don’t think I’ve gotten hold of a person that actually cares,” he said. “Now they’re fumbling to tell people what’s going on. But they really don’t know what’s going on.”
Equifax plays a key role in the financial industry, making this breach more alarming than previous ones at Yahoo or retailers. It’s a storehouse of personal information, like how much people owe on their houses and whether they have court judgments against them.
Lenders rely on the information collected by three big credit bureaus — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — to help them decide on financing for homes, cars and credit cards. Credit checks are sometimes done by employers when deciding whom to hire for a job.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Even if you don’t know if you’re one of the 143 million, you might want to consider extreme protective measures.
Your strongest immediate option involves placing a credit freeze on their files with the major credit bureaus. That locks down your information, making it impossible for outsiders to open new accounts and bank cards in your name. But it also blocks you…