7 Tips for Staying Safe After the Equifax Breach – Without Equifax’s Help

If your bank got robbed, would you make a large deposit the next day? If a babysitter lost your child, would you ask that person to lead the search party? Then why would you turn to Equifax for help dealing with the Equifax data breach?

Equifax already allowed hackers to steal 145.5 million people’s personal information. So giving the company more info – to sign up for complimentary credit monitoring or to see if you were affected by the breach – is something of a “fool me twice” situation.

Plus, let’s get something straight right from the start: Your personal information is out there. There’s no use in hoping otherwise or confirming your status with Equifax. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. adults were affected by the data breach at Equifax. And that’s just one breach. You also have to consider the many others that have happened in recent years, including:

  • Anthem: 80 million people’s records were stolen in 2015.
  • Target: 41 million customers had their payment info stolen in 2012.
  • Yahoo: 3 billion accounts were compromised in 2013-2014.

Your goal should be to make yourself as tough of a target for identity thieves as possible. Imagine, for example, that we everyday consumers are a herd of wildebeest, and the identity thieves are a pack of lions. Sure, they can see all of us, but they won’t be able to catch everyone. So they’ll target the weak.

Here’s what you can do to avoid being attacked.

  1. Sign up for 24/7 credit monitoring. You’ll get a notification whenever there’s an important change to your credit report, allowing you to immediately look into the change and take action if needed. And there are plenty of free 24/7 credit-monitoring services to choose from these days.
  2. Enable two-step verification everywhere.This means you’ll have to input a code texted to your cell phone whenever you sign into an account on a new device. This adds an extra layer of security to any account, but it’s especially important with online bank accounts, credit card accounts and your primary email. You’ll likely use your main email to reset other account passwords, after all.
  3. Change your passwords.You hear this advice all the time, and for good reason. It’s a simple, effective way to keep your information safe. And a breach of this magnitude is a good excuse to catch up in this regard. Ideally, you should create three new passwords: one for email, one for financial accounts and a third for all other accounts. They should be at least eight characters long, including at least one uppercase letter, lowercase letter, number and special character.

By the way, you should avoid using a password manager. That would create a single point of failure, exposing all of your passwords if it were compromised.

  1. Freeze your reports for added security. Fraud alerts don’t really do anything. They’re just a warning and are easily overlooked by lenders. Freezing your credit reports, on the other hand, prevents anyone without a special PIN from accessing your files. There’s generally a small fee for locking each of your credit reports, which you must do individually. But it’s waived for victims of fraud.
  2. Suppress fraudulent info. A fraudulent account on your credit report could find its way back onto your file if you remove it by following the standard credit report dispute process. In contrast, suppressing or blocking the info prevents it from being re-reported in the future and making an unwelcome comeback. (This is essentially a dedicated dispute process for credit report inaccuracies stemming from identity theft. It’s faster than a standard dispute, and it requires you to take special steps such as completing a Federal Trade Commission affidavit.)
  3. Never respond to unsolicited requests for info. Spam calls and emails typically increase in the aftermath of a big breach, indicating that at least some of your info has been released. When the time comes, don’t let the moment fluster you. Just hang up or delete the email.
  4. File your taxes early. If you’re anticipating a refund this year, you can cut identity thieves off at the pass by filing early and claiming the money you’re due before they have a chance to.

Finally, it’s important not to get overly focused on your Equifax credit report. Just because an identity thief gets his or her information from Equifax does not mean the fraud perpetrated with that info will automatically show up on your Equifax report. Lenders typically select one of the three major bureaus to pull a report from. So make sure to keep a close eye on your TransUnion and Experian reports, too.

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Stressed About Money? Here’s How to Cope

If you stress about money, you might find comfort in the fact that you’re not alone, especially if you’re a millennial. More than two-thirds of the generation report having moderate to high levels of anxiety about savings and income, while only half of the general population says the same, according to a survey by financial services firm Northwestern Mutual. Even worse, that financial stress is spilling over and negatively impacting other aspects of their lives: 28 percent of millennials say their financial anxiety affects their job performance, 23 percent get physically ill, 18 percent feel depressed and 24 percent say it causes issues in relationships with their spouse or partner.

“Stress doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it can permeate multiple aspects of our lives,” says Megan Ford, a financial therapist at the University of Georgia and president of the Financial Therapy Association, a professional trade group for this emerging field of finance. “Stress in our lives – related to money or otherwise – can be toxic to our physical health, emotional health and to our relationships.”

Of course, you can find plenty of reasons to stress about money at every stage of life: In or near retirement, concerns about having enough money to fund longer life expectancies loom large. Starting in your late 30s through your 40s, 50s and even 60s, your budget might be pulled in many different directions, from paying for child care to helping care for aging parents. For adults age 18 to 34 (how Northwestern Mutual defines millennials ), a lack of knowledge when you’re just starting out and first trying to wrap your arms around your finances can be a huge stressor.

And just thinking about all those financial demands, as well as daily expenses and how to cover them can weigh on people. “It’s this constant game of debits and credit, and it’s exhausting – emotionally, physically, cognitively,” says financial psychology specialist Meghaan Lurtz. “If you spend your entire day thinking about [finances] … even if you’re doing well … it’s gonna feel scarce, and it’s gonna feel stressful.”

Beyond the quantitative and logistical demands of financial planning, money can come with emotional pressure, too. “Often there are deeper reasons we react to money with fear, stress or anxiety,” Ford says. “For example, how your parents dealt with money or what your money climate was growing up influences your feelings and behaviors concerning finances.”

The first step to coping is to recognize that you have a problem and seriously contemplate how you’re feeling about it. “When we identify what specifically this anxiety may be rooted in, we can see more clearly what other steps are necessary to keep the stress under control,” Ford says.

For example, if you grew up seeing your parents struggle financially, that might have ingrained a sense of fear in you that makes you overly cautious about spending. Or perhaps you grew up accustomed to a certain standard of living, so you have difficulty giving up certain luxuries you can no longer really afford and have wound up digging yourself into a hole of credit card debt.

Whatever your personal situation, devising a solution to your financial problems starts with an inventory of your assets, debts, income and expenses. “Just really get a grip on what is happening in your financial life,” says Chantel le Bonneau Stewart, a Los Angeles-based certified financial planner with Northwestern Mutual. “That way you at least have the information you need to start making choices.”

Setting and prioritizing your financial goals is the next step to easing your financial stress. It can be challenging to juggle all the demands on your money, so knowing the root cause of your anxiety can really help you sort through what is most important to you. For example, if fear due to your parents’ financial struggles fuels your money stress, perhaps building and maintaining a sizable emergency fund should be a top priority for you. Or if you really need to treat yourself from time to time, you can find a way to fit some indulgence into your budget and try to avoid an unplanned splurge. “This can take some thought, but really reflect on what is important to you financially and why,” Ford says. “Investing in and spending on what ultimately makes you happy helps to reduce stress.”

Finally, you might consider getting some professional help. Tackling your finances is certainly a huge endeavor that requires you to become financially literate. But all the information on the subject that’s available online, on television, in newspapers and magazines – while helpful – might also be overwhelming. Working with a pro can help you sort through the noise and take control of your own financial situation.

“You don’t need to understand every component of finance, but you need to know how it impacts you and the choices that you’re going to have to make,” le Bonneau Stewart says. “A lot of times that knowledge empowers people to make choices and feel a lot better about the work that they’re doing.”

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Prepare Now for These 5 End-of-Year Expenses

For many Americans, December is an expensive month. The extra expenses flow like mulled wine, resulting in an empty checking account and a full credit card bill when January rolls around.

The truth is that most of these expenses are easily predictable, and you can prepare for many of them right now, reducing their impact when December rolls around.

Here are five major end-of-year expenses that people face along with actions you can take today to minimize them.

 

Holiday gifts. The best strategy for reducing the expense of holiday gifts is to start shopping early. Identify items that you might want to give to each person on your gift list, then start carefully shopping for those items to find them on steep discount.

The more time you give yourself for such shopping, the more likely you are to find discounts that will cut down your overall holiday spending. You don’t have to wait until Black Friday to keep an eye out for sale items or discounts on the gifts you intend to give.

Even better, if you buy some of your gifts now, you’re spreading out the expense, so it doesn’t hit like an avalanche in late November or December.

Even if you do decide to wait to buy gifts, there’s no reason not to put aside some money starting now, so you’ll have it later.

 

Travel expenses. For many, December means traveling to visit family and enjoy holiday celebrations together, and that means travel expenses.

Of course, if you plan ahead now, you can save quite a lot on flights and hotel stays, not necessarily by buying right now, but by checking for prices starting now.

Plus, if you start thinking about travel planning now, you can be more specific in your requests for time off at work and thus be able to search for less common travel times, which might be less expensive.

Your first step, then, is to talk to family members now and nail down travel and holiday plans, so you can use that as a basis for smart travel planning and time off from work.

 

 

Food and hosting costs. For others, a big part of the holiday expense comes from hosting family members and providing lots of food. That can be expensive, especially when you’re throwing together meals for a crowd.

Again, you can save money and spread out the cost by planning ahead for this, even starting now. You can make large batches of soup in advance and stow them in the freezer, so you can thaw them later when they’re needed, or you can prepare foods such as chopped onions and green peppers and freeze them to save time during the busy December months.

Not only that, you’re also giving yourself time to shop for large meal expenses, such as a ham, turkey or large quantity of flour, which can be stored in the freezer or in the pantry until then.

 

Home winterizing. Winter is coming, like it or not, which means that your home likely needs some preparatory work to be energy efficient and ready for the cold months.

You can start on these tasks right away, of course. It’s probably time to change your furnace filters and add caulk to your windows where you find a draft. You might want to add a weatherstrip to a door that has a draft under it, too.

As cold weather gets closer, you can take more cold-weather energy-conservation steps, such as reversing the direction of your ceiling fans and dropping your thermostat by a few degrees, so the heat isn’t always kicking on.

 

Charitable giving. Many people give to charities during December because they’re inspired by the season and want their giving included in the current year for tax purposes.

While you personally may want to wait to make such donations, you can start putting aside money for charitable giving now. Put a portion of your donation aside in your savings account today, so the financial burden of the donation doesn’t hit you in December.

Also, if you start thinking abut charitable giving now, you can give more thought to the various charities you wish to support and amounts you wish to give. With the extra time, you can do some homework into how the charities actually spend their money and give to charities that are most in line with your personal values.

If you start taking action now, then the end of the year won’t hit you like a financial freight train. Instead, it’ll be a joyful period, when you can focus on family and friends rather than dollars and cents. Good luck.

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