By Andrew Zashin*

By now you have probably heard that Equifax’s database was breached sometime this past summer. Announced only in September, cybercriminals gained access to about 145.5 million consumers’ personal data. Some consumers in the United Kingdom and Canada were affected as well. Data stolen included full names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and even driver license numbers. More than 200,000 credit card credentials were stolen as well. Obviously, breaches are not new news, and several other data breaches have been discovered and reported since that time. Your chance of becoming victim of identity theft is higher than ever before, and it’s becoming less a question of “if” your identity or financial information is compromised and more a matter of “when” it will happen.

Every breach presents a huge concern for those affected – and a public relations nightmare for the breached entity. The Equifax breach is particularly troubling. Not only was the sheer number of credit files impacted huge, but the breadth of the information obtained is particularly scary. And, unlike an insurance company, bank or other entity with which consumers choose to do business, any consumer wanting any type of consumer credit forms a relationship with Equifax by default – and never had an option to “opt out” in the first place.

What’s the average person to do? While it’s enough to make anyone want to switch back to cash, there are some common sense steps you can take to decrease your chances of becoming a victim:

• Specific to the Equifax breach, you can visit equifaxsecurity2017.com to determine whether your data was among that stolen. Follow the prompts and instructions on that website to sign up for their complimentary credit-monitoring service.

• Monitor all bank and credit accounts regularly for charges or withdrawals you don’t recognize. If you see something, call your bank or the number on the reverse of the credit card to report it immediately. There are laws on the books to protect consumers from fraud, and it is likely that you will get your money back, but they do require quick reporting – and you may be out of pocket for the money while it gets corrected.

• Check your credit reports regularly. You are entitled by law to get a free credit report from all three major credit reporting agencies each year via annualcreditreport.com. You can even maximize your coverage by staggering your requests and, say, getting a report from Equifax now, a report from TransUnion in four months or so, and a report from Experian a few months after that. If you see an unknown account or inquiry, contact that entity immediately to report possible fraud.

• You may want to consider the possibility of a credit freeze. You can accomplish this though each of the major agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – and you will want to contact each of them individually. In effect, a freeze locks down your credit file and prevents new lines of credit from being opened with your credentials without having the PIN number that you create. When you intend to open up a new line of credit, you simply call the agencies and ask for the freeze to be lifted temporarily.

• File your taxes well in advance of the filing deadline and make sure to read and respond timely to any communications from the IRS or other tax agencies. Surprisingly, tax fraud is a fairly common scam using stolen credentials. Filing early will make it more likely for a fraudulent filing to be caught before it creates a big headache for you.

• If making purchases online, consider using a trusted payment service such as PayPal, and if you can, use a credit card rather than a debit card. Another option is to use a temporary credit card number generated specifically for that purpose – a service which many banks are now offering – if you have any concerns about whether the site has adequate security protections.

The breaches are concerning, without a doubt. But the fact is it is pretty hard to exist in our modern world – with all of its technology and convenience – without some risk of data breach. While the typical consumer can’t do anything to impact how companies like Equifax protect their data, and while it is impossible to completely lock down everything, there are some common sense steps you can take to protect your information.

This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.