Clark Howard gives consumers a two-step approach to managing the Equifax breach

September 15, 2017 Atlanta - Exterior of Equifax Corporate Headquarters on Peachtree Street NE in Atlanta on Friday, September 15, 2017. Because of lax laws and loopholes, businesses may be able to escape severe penalties for putting sensitive consumer information at risk, as Atlanta-based Equifax is accused of doing with the massive hack revealed this month. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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September 15, 2017 Atlanta - Exterior of Equifax Corporate Headquarters on Peachtree Street NE in Atlanta on Friday, September 15, 2017. Because of lax laws and loopholes, businesses may be able to escape severe penalties for putting sensitive consumer information at risk, as Atlanta-based Equifax is accused of doing with the massive hack revealed this month. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Atlanta-based consumer advocate, Clark Howard is mad. Really mad.

Equifax, he said, has been "less than worthless" in its handling of the recent data breach.

"The focus and attention have been so ineffective from them on dealing with people who are reacting and trying to do something about it," said Howard.

On Sept. 7, the Atlanta-based credit bureau announced that records from about 143 million consumers were compromised in a security breach that occurred from mid-May through July 2017.

On Sept. 18, media reports uncovered information indicating the company may have known about a breach months earlier than they previously acknowledged . This most recent breach is apparently the third security breach for the company in recent years, but the one that could prove most devastating to consumers.

Compromised information included names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and some driver’s license numbers. The thieves also got access to credit card numbers for about 209,000 U.S. consumers and 182,000 dispute documents with personal identifying information.

In the days following the announcement, Equifax has been criticized for missteps including the actions of three top-level executives who sold stock -- a move which launched an investigation by the Department of Justice.    The company also initially charged a fee for services that would protect the information of consumers by the breach. The agreement also included language indicating that consumers who accepted the terms of the service would waive their right to sue Equifax.

Equifax has declined requests for media interviews and blamed its software maker for the breach .

"Everybody in the industry knows they are a target so that they were using outdated software is mind-boggling," said Howard. "These databases have so much to them and so much information available in them that if I am a criminal or criminal ring, I would do everything I could to find my way in and steal all the information I can."

The three credit bureaus hold deep and wide information on American citizens, he said. For consumers impacted by the breach, having such rich personal data in the hands of thieves could have far-reaching consequences, said Howard.

"Everybody in the financial industry that depends on the credit reporting industry -- now any process they use to verify your identity is suspect. I am hopeful that this unleashes a wave of innovation and that people come up with new and sophisticated ways to verify someone’s identity," Howard said.

At Howard's Consumer Action Center , volunteers were fielding 20 times the normal call volume with wait times up to 17 minutes on Monday afternoon, he said. Usually, about 5 percent of calls to the center are related to credit. Currently 98 percent of calls are about the Equifax security breach.

Equifax has provided a website for consumers to determine if their information has been compromised. The site also give consumers the opportunity to sign up for credit monitoring. But many consumers have either been unable to get reliable information on the site or unable to complete necessary steps given the sheer volume of individuals trying to access the site.

Howard says consumers should avoid using any of the options offered up by Equifax. Instead, he gives consumers a two-step approach to managing the fallout right now.

First, he said, got to  Credit Karma and register for free alerts . You will be able to track your credit over time, see your credit scores and know if anyone is attempting to apply for credit as if they are you, Howard said.

Though the company does not offer monitoring from Experian, Howard said the chances that a stolen identity would only be picked up by one bureau is slim, so monitoring two out of three should be adequate.

The next step, said Howard, is freezing your credit, something he has personally done for about a decade. "With a credit freeze, even if someone tries to establish credit in your name they can’t," he said. A freeze means not even you can open credit in your name, which means anyone planning to make a major purchase will have to use a pin number to unfreeze his or her credit first.

Currently, freezing your credit will cost about $6  in Georgia ($3 for Transunion and $3 for Experian) which Howard considers cheap insurance.

Consumers can freeze their credit with Equifax for free, but they may have trouble getting it done. Howard suggests waiting a few weeks until the systems are no longer swamped.

It may also be wise to freeze the credit of a minor who doesn't have an actual credit history as thieves may view them as a clean slate for identity theft. Georgia happens to be one of the states that allows parents to freeze a child's credit. "Because this is going to go on for so long, if you haIt will be one less thing you have to worry about.

Howard hopes congress will eventually waive fees on credit freezes. It is salt in the wound for consumers to have to pay the same companies who mishandled their credit to then protect information they were freely given in the first place, he said.

Be wary of offers from companies telling you that they will protect your credit if you sign up and pay for a subscription service, he said. You are better off carefully monitoring your accounts regularly than paying a service.

While there is no easy way to know if someone is stealing your identity, consumers can use anecdotal information. You may get a strange piece of mail welcoming you as a new customer. Or maybe you notice that you are getting no mail at all.

"Generally it will be something out of the ordinary," he said. But there is also a chance that you won't know your information has been used until you get a call from a debt collector. "A lot of times we miss the subtle signals because we are busy with our lives we are not supposed to be police detectives," Howard said.

While any consumer should assume he or she is at risk, Howard said wealthier individuals should be particularly concerned.

"I am very worried about something much bigger than someone stealing your identity to get credit. I am worried about people using your stolen identity to steal the money you already have. Criminals know your address and they know which zip codes are the wealthiest addresses in the area," he said.

The heart of the issue is that while Equifax is in the business of selling consumer information, consumers are clearly not their focus."Equifax has been less than worthless in how they have handled this," Howard said. "We are not the customer. They don’t even pretend that we matter."