How to Protect Yourself Online in the Wake of the Equifax Data Breach

In July, Equifax, one of the big three credit tracking services in the United States, was hacked in a big way. According to reports, 143 million Americans may be vulnerable as a result of stolen data. That is most of the adult population of the country. And the data that was stolen was precisely the kind of information identity thieves want: Social Security numbers, bank account information, driver's license numbers. It's bad.

Equifax has only made the situation worse by failing to report the hack until a month after it happened and providing contradictory information about who may have been breached and exactly what was lost. Additionally, outlets have reported that several executives at the company dumped millions in stock just before the hack was announced.

To make matters worse in the court of public opinion, the website Equifax set up to allow potentially affected consumers to check their status had a clause in the terms of service that allegedly prevented the company's customers from suing. The New York attorney general's office demanded the removal of the language as unenforceable, and Equifax obliged. Even with those now altered terms of service, one class action has already been filed in Oregon and more are expected to join as details emerge about this industry giant's data losses and how it responded in the aftermath.

Consumers, at the end of the day, are likely on the hook for protecting themselves, however, and in the world today, that means doing whatever you can to protect your digital life. Of course, there are plenty of other issues that come along with a security failure such as this, but much of what we do online can be fortified without anyone's help. Here are some steps you can take.

The Equifax hack targeted more than 100 million Americans.
The Equifax hack targeted more than 100 million Americans.

Change and Strengthen Your Passwords

The single most important thing you can do to protect yourself online is to have complex passwords. This does not mean mixing up your mom's maiden name with your anniversary. This means complicated, difficult-to-remember passwords, preferably generated randomly. Use the maximum number of characters your service will allow and plan to change your passwords, on average, twice per year.

Use a Password Storage and Protection Service

Before you even get into your inability to remember your passwords, we want to tell you about password storage and protection services. They are incredibly cheap and insanely effective. Yes, browsers can store that information, as can keychain managers on your computer, but neither is as secure and easy to use as a service like Last Pass or Dashlane or 1Password. You never have to remember another password, which means you can make them as complicated as you want.

Employ Two-Factor Authentication Whenever Possible

For many services, two-factor authentication has become a requirement. Essentially, it means you must have two ways to prove you are who you say you are. The first is a password. The second is, typically, a text message verification. Once you have logged in, the service will text you a code you must enter to proceed. It can be a bit of an inconvenience, but better that than getting your bank account emptied. Some services, like Google, use two-factor authentication, but only if you enable it. Do that today.

Back Up Your Data

In case of any data breach, it is critical to have backup copies of your information. Digital storage is remarkably inexpensive, whether it is an external hard drive or an online cloud service. Backup drives are great, but not easily accessible if you aren't on a computer. Cloud services provide easy access, but it's one more tool to have to deal with. Frankly, we recommend both. The first time you lose critical information — from your old-school photos you scanned and then tossed, to the digital copies of your mortgage — you realize how painful it is. Avoid that and get a good backup drive and sign up for a service like Dropbox, Google Drive or even Carbonite for backing up your entire machine.

Get a Credit Monitoring and Protection Service

Services like LifeLock and Identity Force can be extremely valuable if you are worried about your identity being stolen. Banks often provide some protection, but not to the degree of services like these. Not only will they monitor the usage of your identity and financial information, but they offer insurance protection against fraud, as well as experts in the restoration of your credit and identity. Most of us have health insurance, car insurance, home insurance and even life insurance. It makes sense to have insurance against identity theft as well.

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