How to Protect Yourself Against Identity Theft

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Oh, Equifax (NYSE: EFX)! Would Alanis Morissette consider it "ironic" that a company that sells credit monitoring products put so many consumers at risk with a data breach? If you're one of the millions at risk from this latest fiasco, the irony is surely not lost on you. Here are some actions you can take to protect yourself from identity theft.

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1. Monitor your accounts

Closely monitor your accounts for unusual activity. With apps like Mint, Personal Capital, and YNAB that allow you to check all accounts from one place, it's easier than ever to quickly monitor your accounts. Get into a habit of checking your accounts regularly, and if you have joint accounts, don't assume your account co-owner made a purchase or initiated a change if you notice activity you don't recognize.

Be sure to regularly complete updates to your computer and other electronic devices. It turns out the Equifax breach stemmed from failure to patch a bug that was easily fixed with an update. Don't let your devices put you at risk.

2. Change your passwords

If you fear your information has been compromised, change your password. Choose a solid password -- not just a different iteration of the previous one, like changing your password from Password1 to Password2. Don't create passwords that can be easily guessed from your personal information, like the names of family members, your birthday, or your anniversary.

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While it's tempting, don't reuse passwords. When account takeover occurs, hackers buy stolen usernames and passwords and run bots to see what logins succeed with other accounts. In 2016, losses from account takeovers were $2.3 billion, up 61% from the prior year. Use a password manager to help you keep track of multiple passwords.

3. Protect your personal information

Think of yourself as a mother bear and your personal information as your cub, and be ferocious about protecting it. Don't give personally identifying information to any company or organization that initiates a call to you. If you didn't make the call, you don't really know who's on the other end of the phone line.

If a provider requests your Social Security number, ask why it is needed and how it will be protected. Then make sure you don't recite it aloud without checking to see if someone could be listening. Also don't take calls in public if you'll have to provide personal information to the person to whom you're speaking. (Think of the guy you overhear on his cellphone while grocery shopping yelling out his name, date of birth, and Social Security number to make an appointment. Don't be that guy.)

Be careful about what you share on social-media sites, as that information can help identity thieves crack security questions. Adjust your privacy settings so only friends may see your information, and don't accept requests from people you don't know.

4. Check your credit report

Even though Equifax's breach may make you wary of credit reporting agencies, it's still important to regularly monitor your credit report for new accounts that you did not open.

You can receive a free credit report once a year from each of the three credit reporting agencies -- Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian -- by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. If you create a calendar reminder and space out these reports, you can check your credit report for free every four months.

If you have a perk through your bank or credit card that allows you to access your credit score, check your score regularly. If you see it start to drop, check your credit report to make sure no one has fradulently used your information.

5. Use third-party monitoring

Third-party credit monitoring informs you if something changes on your credit report. Some credit monitoring companies will also notify you if suspicious activity occurs on your credit card or your bank account.

Equifax is now offering a free year of credit monitoring with TrustedID Premier and (doing the right thing) has removed the offensive legalese that waived your right to future legal action if you register for the program.

You may sign up for this monitoring whether you were affected by the breach or not. TrustedID Premier will monitor your credit report and Social Security number, but it will not inform you of suspicious charges to your credit card accounts or changes in your bank or investment accounts. TrustedID Premier will provide a credit report lock and $1 million in identity theft insurance.

If you're concerned that your information has been compromised, you may want to register for both Equifax's free TrustedID Premier program and credit monitoring from a company that also reviews activity in your credit and bank accounts.

6. Consider a fraud alert or credit freeze

Another option to proactively protect yourself from having credit taken out in your name is to use a fraud alert or credit freeze.

You may place a fraud alert on your accounts by contacting any of the three credit bureaus (the one you contact must notify the other two). This alert will signal to any creditor that you are at risk for identity fraud, and they must take additional steps to verify your identity before extending new credit or making changes to a current credit account. A fraud alert lasts for 90 days.

A credit freeze is a more extreme measure to protect your credit. If you put a credit freeze on your account, it prevents anyone from accessing your credit report without permission. If you want to open a new credit account, you must contact the credit reporting agency to temporarily lift the freeze. There is also a fee to initiate and lift the freeze.

A fraud alert and a credit freeze may be effective in preventing someone from opening new credit in your name, but these measures will not prevent someone from accessing current accounts.

If you are certain you are a victim of identity theft, time is of the essence. Immediately visit the U.S. government website IdentityTheft.gov and follow its guidelines to mitigate the damage.

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Mary Crawley has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.