How to Protect Yourself from the Massive Equifax Hack

The bad news is that there’s a good chance your personal information was stolen during the massive data hack of Equifax, one of America’s three largest credit reporting agency. The thieves stole the social security numbers, dates of birth, names and addresses of 143 million Americans—that’s about 60% of the adult population of the United States.

This is particularly dangerous because with that information, the thieves could steal your identity to take out new loans in your name, alter your existing accounts, and ruin your good credit. But the good news is…well, there isn’t much good news to a hack of this size.

Still, if you act quickly, it’s possible you can protect yourself. Here are the steps you need to take sooner rather than later.

1. Find out if your information was compromised. Visit https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/potential-impact/ and click the “check potential impact” button.

2. If it says your information was likely stolen, at a minimum you should sign up for the free credit monitoring Equifax is offering for a year.

But that level of protection likely isn’t enough. The thieves still have your personal information and could use it to apply to lenders who don’t use Equifax. Also, because the thieves have your social security number, they could wait and use it a year or five or ten years from now—unless America totally rethinks the system it uses to identify everyone, that still leaves you vulnerable.

Here are some other steps you should consider taking, adapted from the Federal Trade Commissions recommendations:

• Start checking your your credit reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — for free — by visiting annualcreditreport.com. You can check each one time a year for free. Space them out in four month intervals, so you’re regularly getting up-to-date information. If you see evidence of identity theft, visit IdentityTheft.gov to find out what to do.

• Consider placing a credit freeze on your files. A credit freeze makes it harder for someone to open a new account in your name. A credit freeze won’t prevent a thief from making charges to your existing accounts, but implementing a freeze at all three of the major credit bureaus means they won’t be able to issue a report to any company that doesn’t already have you has a customer, making it harder for the thieves to use your information to open a new line of credit. You can unfreeze it with a special PIN when you want to apply for a new loan.

• Monitor your existing credit card and bank accounts closely for charges you don’t recognize.

• If you decide against a credit freeze, consider placing a fraud alert on your files. A fraud alert warns creditors that you may be an identity theft victim and that they should verify that anyone seeking credit in your name really is you.

• File your taxes early — as soon as you have the tax information you need, before a scammer can. 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.

By putting a freeze on your accounts, checking your credit reports regularly, and monitoring activity on your existing accounts, you’ll be doing everything you can to protect yourself.

Copyright 2017 Credit Union National Association Inc. Information subject to change without notice. For use with members of a single credit union. All other rights reserved.

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Do you know the credit union difference?

International Credit Union Day is celebrated annually on the third Thursday of October and celebrates how credit unions help consumers reach their financial dreams through its people helping people philosophy. In the Ohio Credit Union League’s 2017 Consumer Survey, respondents were asked what differences between credit unions and other financial institutions they found to be most significant.

Lower interest rates on loans had the top spot with 35 percent of respondents citing it as the most significant difference. A close second at 34 percent, was fewer and lower fees compared to other financial institutions. Credit unions being member-owned, with profits going back to benefit members, was named as the most significant difference for 24 percent of respondents.

Credit unions are known for their service-centric model, and 90 percent of the respondents to the League’s survey rated the service they received from credit unions as “outstanding.”

The American Customer Satisfaction Index consistently shows credit unions deliver excellent service to members. The most recent report, on its 100-point scale, ACSI said credit unions received an overall score of 82, up from 81 the previous year.

The World Council of Credit Unions data indicates there are 231.2 million credit union members worldwide who belong to 68,880 credit unions in 109 countries. In the United States, according to the Credit Union National Association, as of June 2017, there were 110.6 million members of 5,812 credit unions in the United States.

In Ohio, the state’s 284 credit unions serve 2.9 million members, and by choosing credit unions as their financial institutions, according to CUNA’s Member Benefits Index, those Ohioans received more than $206 million in direct financial benefits in the past year.

Credit unions serve a common field of membership based on characteristics such as a geographical area, employee groups, or membership in an organization. Every resident of Ohio is eligible to join a credit union, and deposits are protected by the federal government’s National Credit Union Administration insurance or the private American Share Insurance.

So, if you’re trying to decide on a financial institution, keep the following in mind:

  • Do your research: Online reviews, consumer surveys, and regulatory agency reports are all good resources to find out how financial institutions treat consumers and how they conduct their business. The FDIC (banks) and NCUA (credit unions) each have searchable databases on the size, financial health, and insurance status of the financial institutions they regulate.
  • Compare your needs with their strengths: If you primarily conduct your financial transactions online, you’ll want an institution that offers online or mobile banking. If ATM fees are an issue, look for surcharge-free networks or institutions that reimburse you for fees. If you need advice on planning for the future, choose an institution with a strong financial wellness program. If you need a car loan or a mortgage, look for the lowest loan interest rates.
  • Choose to be involved: If you have an account with a credit union, you are both a member and an owner. This process guarantees you a voice and ensures that your credit union is looking out for your best financial interests and not that of a small group of stockholders.

Whether you are looking for your first loan, would like to start a small business, or just want to get rid of debt, a credit union can help. They offer many of the same services as other financial institutions but are not-for-profit. They treat you like a person, not a dollar sign. To learn more about credit unions and how they help members achieve their dreams, whatever they may be, visit www.aSmarterChoice.org.

How to Place a Fraud Alert on Your Credit, and Why

Just about everyone with a pulse and a credit file is worried about whether data breaches, such as the massive Equifax hack, have exposed their personal data to scammers.

When you’re worried about identity theft, the simplest way to add a layer of protection to your credit file is a fraud alert. It’s a free, 90-day service that requires businesses to take extra care when issuing credit in your name.

What a fraud alert requires

When you have a fraud alert, a business must use “reasonable policies and procedures to form a reasonable belief” that the person applying for credit in your name is actually you.

Businesses handling a credit application may try to contact you directly, usually by phone, or may hire an identity verification service.

You’ll almost certainly be unable to get “instant credit,” such as a store card offered at the register. It also may delay the process of getting a mortgage or car loan.

Choosing between an alert and something stronger

If you’re worried about identity theft — let’s say your Social Security card is missing or you lost your wallet — a fraud alert protects your credit while you track down your misplaced wallet or card.

However, stronger, longer-lasting protections are available in the form of a credit freeze or credit lock. Rather than requiring extra verification before a business accesses your credit file, they make it inaccessible unless you unfreeze or unlock it.

Mike Litt, consumer program advocate at U.S. PIRG, a federation of nonprofits that push for policy change, recommends fraud alerts for anyone who chooses not to freeze their credit. It’s quicker than a freeze or lock, because you have to contact just one agency, and it’s free.

>> MORE: Credit freeze and credit lock: What’s the difference?

How to apply a fraud alert

You can call, go online or write to any one of the three major credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Whichever bureau you contact will notify the other two:

Experian: 888-397-3742; equifax.com; Experian, P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013

TransUnion: 800-680-7289; transunion.com; TransUnion Fraud Victim Assistance Department, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016

Equifax: 888-766-0008; equifax.com; Equifax Consumer Fraud Division, P.O. Box 740256, Atlanta, GA 30374

Make sure the credit bureau has correct contact information for you.

The alert will expire in 90 days; make a note of that date in case you want to renew it.

Each credit bureau should contact you to confirm the alert and offer instructions on how to get a free copy of your credit report in addition to the one you can get every 12 months by using AnnualCreditReport.com. Keep the letter or email verifying the alert in case a lender doesn’t follow the requirements and someone opens a fraudulent account.

Special fraud alerts

If you have been a victim of identity theft or are serving in the military, you may be eligible for an alert lasting longer than 90 days.

Extended alerts: If you’ve created an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission, you’re eligible for a seven-year alert. Extended fraud alerts also come with additional free credit reports.

Alerts for military: Service members can place an active-duty credit alert to protect their credit while they’re deployed. It lasts one year and can be renewed to match the period of deployment.

How to renew or lift a fraud alert

You can lift a fraud alert early by calling one credit bureau and providing identifying information. However, there’s little reason to do so. Alerts expire on their own unless you renew them. Mark your calendar and contact one of the credit bureaus if you wish to extend the protection.

Because alerts are the lowest level of added protection and expire, if you find yourself continually renewing an alert, consider stepping up to a lock or freeze.

Stay vigilant

Fraud alerts, credit freezes and locks all aim to prevent new accounts from being opened fraudulently. They don’t prevent fraudulent charges from being made on an account you’ve already opened.

Stay on the lookout for fraud in your existing accounts:

  • Check credit card statements for charges you don’t recognize. Often there’s a phone number listed with the merchant name on transactions, so you can investigate anything that looks off.
  • Sign up for text or email alerts about credit transactions. Many issuers let you set a transaction amount so you’re alerted to anything over that.

If you see a charge you think isn’t yours, call your issuer right away to dispute it. Your card issuer can’t charge interest or fees on the transaction while it’s being investigated.

The article How to Place a Fraud Alert on Your Credit, and Why originally appeared on NerdWallet.

Need a New Appliance? Learn, Compare — Then Ask for a Deal

Unless you’re an expert in spin cycles, buying an appliance could leave you dizzy.

To make the process easier, here are answers to the appliance-buying questions you’ll probably ponder, from “When should I buy?” to “Do I really need a warranty?”

Repair or replace?

People with existing appliances have two options: repair or replace.

You can count on major appliances to last about a year for every $100 spent, says Doug Rogers, president of Mr. Appliance, a national appliance-repair company.

“If I bought a $100 microwave, I’m probably not going to call anyone to fix it if it’s over a year old,” Rogers says. “I’m probably just going to go buy a new one. But if I buy a $1,000 refrigerator, it’s probably worth fixing up to 10 years.”

Also consider your existing appliance’s energy efficiency — you could get an Energy Star rebate for a more efficient model — and its appearance, because replacing one appliance may leave you with others that no longer match.

Refurbished or reconditioned appliances offer a cost-effective alternative to buying new, but look into the warranty and the return policy in case something goes wrong.

Which one to buy?

Once you’re in the market for something new, don’t fixate on brands, unless you care about top-of-the-line prestige.

“It can matter when you’re looking to buy a luxury appliance, but if you’re buying a low- to midrange appliance, I wouldn’t get caught up too much in the brand name,” Rogers says, noting that he uses some of the same parts to fix appliances from different brands.

No one appliance brand masters everything all the time, says Paul Hope, a senior home and appliance editor at Consumer Reports, a nonprofit that tests and rates products. And contrary to popular belief, a more expensive model isn’t inherently better. Hope says professional-style appliances are pricey but frequently lack features of their less expensive counterparts.

To educate yourself, consult a salesperson and check reviews from sites like CNET and Consumer Reports. Then weigh your options.

A “smart” appliance that works with voice-activated services like Alexa is convenient but likely costly. A counter-depth refrigerator won’t stick out as far past your countertop, but it’s shallower than a standard-depth fridge. Cross-check features to see why one appliance is more expensive than the other and which aspects you can do without.

Online or in store?

When you find something you like, go see it at a store. Online resources are helpful but shouldn’t be the last word. “This is one of the few industries where the online marketplace doesn’t work as well as the local marketplace does,” says Kevin Brasler, executive editor at the nonprofit Consumers’ Checkbook.

Aside from being able to see and touch the appliance, you might also avoid delivery fees by going local.

Will it fit?

Before you swipe your card, make sure your appliance fits — in your home and your budget.

Measure the space where it’ll go. Rogers recommends a close fit; for a 32-inch opening, get an appliance no wider than 31.5 inches.

As for price, get the model number and call five local, independent stores, Brasler says. Tell them you’re shopping around and looking for the best deal. They’ll often give you a quote below the advertised price, he says. Consumers’ Checkbook conducted a price experiment to test this.

“It was common for us to find that for a dishwasher, the lowest price we were quoted was $250 less than the highest price,” Brasler says. “For some of the refrigerators we shopped, we found price differences of $600, $700 or even $800 between the lowest and the highest price.”

When comparing by model number, be specific. “If you look at these model numbers, they’re just a mass of letters and numbers, and one digit off makes it a different appliance,” Brasler says.

What about warranties?

You’re not finished yet. The salesperson may try to sell you extra protection, called a service contract, in case something goes wrong.

“An appliance comes with a warranty,” Rogers says. “Maybe you get a one-year warranty on your parts and labor on your refrigerator and a five-year extended warranty on the sealed system.” Service contracts might cover items that are included in your standard warranty, he says, so read the fine print to ensure you’re not doubling up.

Another consideration: Products don’t usually break within the service plan window, according to Consumer Reports.

Brasler puts it bluntly. “Don’t buy those,” he says. “They’re totally worthless.”

He recommends checking the terms of your credit card. Some extend the length of a standard warranty if you put the purchase on your card. Warehouse clubs like Costco extend manufacturer warranties as well.

More from NerdWallet

The article Need a New Appliance? Learn, Compare — Then Ask for a Deal originally appeared on NerdWallet.

Six Rules for Managing Credit Card Debt

If you want to be the master of your credit card debt load, follow these key rules:

1. Take inventory. How many credit cards do you have? What’s the balance and minimum monthly payment on each? What’s the total balance? If it’s more than you thought or can afford, it’s time to pare down.

2. Check out the cost of your credit cards. What’s the interest rate on each card? What’s the annual fee? Does your card offer a grace period? If the card doesn’t have a grace period, or if you carry over a balance, or take a cash advance, you’re usually charged interest right away.

3. Get one low-fee or lower-interest card and use it wisely. Make Hopewell Federal Credit Union your first stop when starting your search. Check to see if you can transfer existing debt from your various credit cards to your new lower-interest credit card.

4. Make the largest monthly payment you can afford. Even though you may not be able to pay your balance in full, paying the monthly minimum may do little more than cover the accrued interest.

5. Watch out for “teaser rates.” Your mailbox may be brimming with unsolicited credit card offers that promise attractive low-interest rates. But if you read the fine print, you’ll see that after six months or so the issuer may double the low introductory rate.

6. If you get in over your head, don’t bury it in the sand. If you’re having trouble making your monthly payments, contact your creditors before they contact you. If you’re already screening calls from bill collectors, or refusing to open your mail, you need help.

Contact Hopewell Federal at 740.522.8311. We’re here to help you get your finances back in order.

Copyright 2017 Credit Union National Association Inc. Information subject to change without notice. For use with members of a single credit union. All other rights reserved.

Lock Down Your Data After Equifax Breach — Right Now

Chances are good that the Equifax data breach affects you. What do you do next? The short answers: Consider a credit freeze. Scrutinize your credit statements. And check your credit reports from all three credit bureaus.

Equifax says hackers used a website application vulnerability to access the personal information of about 143 million U.S. consumers, or more than half of the country’s adult population. Credit bureaus such as Equifax are an especially sensitive target because they handle detailed financial records, and it’s nearly impossible for consumers to avoid credit reporting. Every time you apply for credit, the personal data — including your name, birthdate and Social Security number — you share can be stored by a reporting bureau.

Most credit card issuers and lenders report consumer activity to all three major U.S. credit bureaus, and your data is likely duplicated at Experian and TransUnion. There’s no reassurance in the fact that only one bureau was hacked.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 10, and that’s because of the quality of the data … your Social Security number is the skeleton key for your identity,” said Adam Levin, founder of CyberScout, a company offering identity theft and data breach defense services.

Freeze your credit for the best protection

Credit freezes prevent stolen information from being used to open new accounts in your name by restricting access to your records. Without access to your credit history, most creditors won’t open a new account.

“We have to assume that our personal information is exposed and act accordingly,” Levin said. He said a credit freeze has become “a critical thing to do.”

Credit expert Barry Paperno, who blogs at Speaking of Credit, agreed: “That’s the most extreme method, but it’s also the most effective.”

But this most effective method will cost you in money and inconvenience.

A freeze might cost you a small fee, which varies from state to state, but it’s better than a credit monitoring service. A freeze can prevent fraud, while monitoring alerts you fraud might have happened. It’s the difference between using a deadbolt to keep thieves out rather than a security camera to catch them after the fact.

You’ll also have to pay to lift the freeze each time you apply for credit or need to allow a potential landlord or employer to check your credit. You’ll receive a PIN to “thaw” your credit. Keep it in a safe place.

Here’s how to request a freeze:

Even with your credit frozen, you’ll still have access to your credit records and scores. If you don’t already have a way to regularly monitor your score and report information, consider signing up before you place a freeze. Some credit card issuers and many personal finance websites offer them for free. Watching for a big, unexplained change can alert you to potential fraud.

Place fraud alerts if a freeze is too much

If you don’t want to lock out all creditors — perhaps you’re in the middle of mortgage shopping or refinancing — you can place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit. This tells potential creditors to verify your identity before issuing credit in your name.

Contact one of the three bureaus, and it will notify the others.

Monitor your own credit

You’re entitled to at least one free credit report from each credit bureau every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport.com. If you haven’t accessed your credit reports within the past 12 months, do it now. If you’ve reviewed them recently, placing a fraud alert on your credit files allows renewed access.

Use your reports from the bureaus, and any free score and report services you have, to watch for:

  • New accounts that you didn’t open
  • Credit inquiries that don’t match when you applied for credit
  • Balances that don’t match your statements

Deal with your credit cards

Freezing keeps new accounts from being opened, but doesn’t stop fraudulent charges on an existing account. Take these steps to protect yourself:

  • Check your email and regular mail. Some consumers whose account numbers were compromised are being notified by credit card issuers that they’ll be sent a new card and the old one will be deactivated.
  • Even if you’re not notified by your issuer and you think your data wasn’t in this breach, don’t relax. Stay vigilant by checking your credit card statements for changes you don’t recognize. If something looks fishy, dig further. Often there’s a phone number listed with the merchant name for the transaction.
  • Consider signing up for text or email alerts about credit transactions. Many issuers let you set them for charges above a certain amount.

If you see a charge you think isn’t yours, call your issuer right away to dispute it. Your card issuer can’t charge interest or fees on the transaction while it’s being investigated.

What was exposed? Is my data out there?

The data accessed includes:

  • Information such as names and addresses, birthdates, Social Security numbers and some driver’s license numbers
  • Credit card numbers for approximately 209,000 consumers
  • Some documents from about 182,000 consumers’ credit report disputes, including personal identifying information

Consumers can check whether their information is affected at www.equifaxsecurity2017.com. However, the “Check potential impact” process asks you to input the final 6 digits of your Social Security number, which gives security experts pause.

Equifax also opened a call center that you can reach at 866-447-7559. It will notify the subset of consumers whose credit card numbers or dispute documents were affected by mail.

Should I sign up for the free Equifax monitoring?

Equifax is offering all U.S. consumers free credit and identity theft monitoring for one year. But the risk doesn’t disappear after a year. Someone who has your Social Security number has it — and might try to use it — forever.

The service is through TrustedID, an Equifax company. The terms of service include waiving your right to participate in a class-action lawsuit or class arbitration and agreeing to use individual arbitration. The National Consumer Law Center has called upon Equifax to strike that clause. Failing that, the NCLC advises consumers they can opt out of the forced individual arbitration by notifying Equifax in writing within 30 days.

Learn more:

The article Lock Down Your Data After Equifax Breach — Right Now originally appeared on NerdWallet.

Carelessness Can Cost You

Many Americans are concerned about someone stealing their credit card, check, or debit card numbers, but they may be ignoring one easy way thieves can access financial accounts: receipts.

Disregarding receipts that have valuable information greatly increases the risk of credit and debit card fraud. Thieves easily can find receipts with valid account numbers in trash cans. Some easy steps you can take to prevent thieves from stealing your financial information:

* Shred all preapproved credit offers, credit and debit card receipts, insurance forms, financial statements, and other paperwork containing personal and financial information;

* Check credit union statements and other financial statements monthly for discrepancies and order a credit report once a year to make sure no one else is using your personal information to obtain credit cards or services;

* Don’t print your Social Security number on your checks and don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet; and

* Be hesitant about giving personal or financial information over the telephone–make sure you know the caller and know how the information will be used.