Q: My wife and I paid off our debt a few years ago. Do we need to worry about the Equifax data breach?

A: All consumers who have ever borrowed money need to take action regarding the Equifax data breach. Most adults have a relationship with Equifax whether they know it or not.

It is one of the three national credit reporting agencies. Financial Institutions and lenders report credit activity to the three national credit reporting agencies. If you have ever borrowed money, more than likely the credit reporting agencies, including Equifax, have a file on you. The Equifax data breach may affect as many as 143 million Americans.

Your credit file includes: name, addresses, employers, Social Security number, driver’s license number, date of birth, account numbers, lenders who have extended you credit, how you have repaid your debts, and public records such as bankruptcies and tax liens. You want to protect yourself from a thief opening accounts in your name, with your information, making charges and not paying the bills.

Equifax is offering free credit monitoring services for one year for all consumers. You can track your credit report to make sure someone isn’t using your information to open accounts. Go to equifax.com to sign up. This action is recommended for all consumers.

You can also put a credit freeze on your accounts. There is a small charge, about $10 each, by each credit reporting agency. You will not be able to apply for credit while the freeze is on and you must contact all three national credit reporting agencies to do this.

Each credit reporting agency will issue you a pin. You must keep this pin and remember it if you want to take the freeze off. There is a waiting period to remove a credit freeze. This is something you need to be aware of should you decide to apply for credit in the next three to six months. The three national credit reporting agencies are: Equifax: equifax.com, Experian: experian.com, and TransUnion: transunion.com

You can also post a fraud alert on your credit reports. The initial alert will last 90 days on your credit reports. A fraud alert requires creditors to verify your identity before opening credit in your name. Once you contact one credit reporting agency, they must notify the other two credit reporting agencies. You can also add an extended alert which lasts seven years.

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Consumers should check their credit report now. To get a copy of your free credit report go to: annualcreditreport.com. You will be asked a series of questions to verify your identity. You are allowed one free credit report every twelve months from each of the credit reporting agencies. You can pull all three credit reports at once, or one every four months.

There are a number of items you should monitor on your credit report. Watch for accounts you did not open. Check for incorrect personal information such as a wrong address, employer, etc. Watch for credit inquiries from companies you did not apply for credit with. Monitor your mail and email for bills that are no longer being delivered to you. Most importantly monitor your bank accounts for missing money.

It is important that consumers take steps to guard their good credit. If you have a parent that has a credit file, I suggest you also sign them up for the free credit monitoring services or put a credit freeze on their accounts with the three credit reporting agencies.

Bonnie Spain is the executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of the Black Hills, a United Way member agency. To contact her, email credit@cccsbh.com

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