Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Equifax - Now What?

Please excuse this short interruption in the adventure blog for a public service announcement.

The last couple of weeks have seen a surge of disasters: minor and major, natural and man-made. My observation has been that it's very rare for a blog post, tweet, or other online comment to have a meaningful impact. I hope some of you find this post to be tangibly helpful. It's mostly just my friends and family reading my blog and almost all of you are Americans. That last part is important because it means more than half of you reading this had your SSN, address, credit score, and other key personal information used to verify your identity swiped between May and July thanks to Equifax. If you've had more important things going on the past week here's a guide:

What happened?
Equifax is one of the three largest credit reporting companies. They compile and sell people's financial data to banks and other financial companies. Their reports and scores are what determine if you or I qualify for a loan and what the interest rate on that loan will be. They were hacked between May and July. When they finally reported it last week, they announced that hackers took key identification info for 143 million Americans. That's a pretty big deal. Most the news I've seen says the breach affected 44% of the population, but unless they are keeping credit scores for minors, they should only have around 250 million Americans in their system. I expect the odds are closer to 60% and maybe higher if the hackers had enough access to target data tied to good scores first.

If possible, Equifax's response has actually been worse than their data security was. Ignoring for the moment that executives sold stock before the news broke, we still have a confusing mess of information that is changing daily, despite two months of preparation. It does seem to be improving a little. You can now check if your data was taken from the Equifax website, but you still have to click through four pages to get to the real page where you enter your info and find out if your data was stolen. Also, the answer they provide might just be meaningless... Until Equifax can provide some reason to trust them again, I'm going to assume my information was taken.

So, a giant faceless company lost all of our data... What can we do?

The good news is that we actually can do a few things to mitigate the damage. Freezing your credit might may not work for you if you're trying to get a loan right now, but the rest of these options should. Here's what I've found so far.

Check your credit report for free to see if there are any accounts you didn't create; I tried to check Equifax after the breach and they would only send me my report by mail! Hopefully, that's just an overwhelmed server and they will get it fixed soon. It's also a good idea to review the TransUnion and Experian reports. You can check each of these for free once every year. In the past I've usually checked all three at once, but I'm switching that to one report every four months.

I also have a free account with Credit Karma as another way to key an eye on my credit. Although it isn't the full credit report, they were able to show me all the credit accounts that Equifax knows about, allowing me to verify them. They've also notified me in the past when I've opened a new account providing a measure of credit monitoring. The tradeoff is that yet another company has access to my data.

Place a fraud alert on your credit report. This is completely free and, in theory, it will encourage lenders take additional steps to verify your identity when they pull your credit report. One downside is that you have to renew it every 90 days unless you are active duty military personnel or can prove you're already a victim of identity theft. I can also imagine lenders deciding to ignore fraud alerts if every account has one.

Place a freeze on each of your credit reports. Unfortunately, you have to pay to freeze your credit report, but it should prevent anyone from opening a new account in your name. The cost varies by state but is limited to $10 per company. Equifax has agreed to waive the fee for freezing their credit report, but TransUnion and Experian are currently still charging to freeze their reports. Depending on the state you live in they can also charge for unfreezing the report later.  The whole thing feels like a mob protection racket to me, but the peace of mind could be worth it if you're not planning to open a new account for a while. To freeze your report(s), just click the links above follow the process for each company. TransUnion is pushing an option to "lock" your report instead of freezing it. It's free, but they don't provide details on what "locking" really means. *Note: see 9/14/17 updates below on Equifax and the IRS.

Now that Equifax has removed the clause (see item 5 linked here) suggesting it will waive your right to sue, you can sign up for their credit monitoring service. Equifax is offering Americans a free year of monitoring after being hacked. That's really stingy. My health insurance lost a lot less data last year and provided two years of free credit monitoring.  I'm going to wait a bit before signing up since that monitoring service I have is still active, and the free period is open until November. If you choose to sign up, please don't reward Equifax by paying for the service next year.

One more thing... The news has focused on credit fraud, but according to the FTC it's possible for someone to file for your tax refund or get a job in your name using the information Equifax just lost (SSN, address, DoB and Employer). They suggest filing your taxes as soon as possible and being extra attentive to anything you see from the IRS. I'd say it's also more important than ever not to give Uncle Sam a large interest free loan. I'd appreciate hearing from anyone who knows how to prevent someone from reporting wages against a stolen SSN.

This security breach will likely still be causing havoc long after the headlines stop. Hopefully some of you will find this information useful for protecting your identity.

Updates 9/14/17:
Turns out it wasn't possible for Equifax's response to be worse than their data security. The user/password was admin/admin? Seriously? On the bright side gross negligence just got a lot easier to prove in court. It's bad news for my Argentinian friends though.

A friend pointed out that phishing scams are another threat likely to increase in frequency and sophistication. The leaked data will provide scammers with enough information to sound legit. My bank has sent out reminders in the past that they don't call and then ask security questions to confirm a customer's identity. If you get a call that seems suspicious you can just decline and then call your institution directly to see if they really are trying to reach you.

Apparently the IRS uses Equifax to verify your identity when you sign for an online account. If you don't already have an online account set up you might want to do so before you freeze your equifax report. Even if you don't use it, setting up the account will prevent anyone else from doing so and filing a fraudulent return that way. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017


Corrie and I returned to Alaska a couple of weeks ago and I am finally catching up on the photos from the trip.

Leaving Sequoia we drove south around the Sierra Nevada and headed east across the desert to Albuquerque. As we drove towards Vegas the temperature outside climbed to 114° and I decided this post should be dedicated to Willis Carrier. I'd also like to thank Corrie for thinking ahead enough to reserve a hotel room with a air conditioning because it was still 108° at 10pm. Camoing in that is a quick recipe for baked (and grumpy) Alaskan.

We started our Zion visit with a trip up the less popular Kolob canyon. It's a short scenic drive with a nice hike at the top and a couple more along the way that would have nice in cooler weather. 
The view from the top. 
We also drove the portion of the main road that is open to traffic in the summer. The road is nice, but I'd really like to go back and do more hiking during a colder season.
We also met a couple from Argentina in Zion who were driving to Alaska. We didn't spend much time talking with them there, but we invited them to stay with us in Anchorage which eventually made it the highlight of our visit to Zion. More on that in a future post.
Corrie and I have both been to Grand Canyon's south rim several times and decided to see the north rim this trip.
The north rim is more than a thousand feet higher than the south rim and gets enough snow to close the road during the winter. In the summer it's both cooler less crowded than the south rim. 
It was still hot, but the cooler weather made hiking more enjoyable and we did several of the trails along with Eva, Sam, and Simon. 
Glen Canyon Dam  from the visitors center. This was probably the most interesting (to me) visitor center we stopped at. Sometimes Corrie says traveling with me is like going on an infrastructure tour. 
I know it's really southern CO, but the sunset at Mesa Verde really felt like being back in NM. Sunsets in the southwest feel short and intense compared to Alaska.
Simon and Sam were troopers on the ranger guided tours. The brochure said you couldn't do all three ranger guided tours in one day... I guess they didn't account for Corrie and Eva's optimization.  
Corrie was also a happy explorer. 
I was most impressed with the longevity of the construction. It makes me wonder about what will be left of the things we build in a thousand years.
By the end of the day Simon was pretty worn out, but then he started a game of "you can't put my hat back on" and I realized that almost catching him could keep him running all the way back to the car.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Sierra Nevada

From Crater Lake we headed south into California and spent a day with friends in the Nevada City. It was great to see the Wasson's again and we would have like to stay a few more days if we hadn't already planned to meet Corrie's sister Eva and her family outside Yosemite the next day.

Hiking with the Wassons along a creek just below their house. 
Yosemite was exceptionally busy thanks to the holiday weekend, but we arrived before breakfast the first day and secured a parking spot with a great view and toured the valley on foot instead of idling along in bumper to bumper traffic. 
Hiking up the trail to Vernal falls I was astounded by how empty the trail was. After we joined a massive crowd at the top that I realized I'd chosen the pack trail. It was little longer, but much quieter.
All of the rivers are still running full after a winter of record snow, but even full the Merced is quite down on the valley floor. 

Corrie and I took Sam and Simon for a late afternoon swim. They are already pretty good hikers despite their short legs.  
The second day in Yosemite we decided to try a later start... We arrived at the gate line about 10:30 and finally entered the park about three hours later! Once we finally got into the mountains I wandered up this creek alone and soon lost the sound of traffic to the wind and waterfalls.
One of the smaller water falls I climbed up to.
The quiet slashing of the water was really nice after the crowds of people on the road.
Hiking above Tenaya Lake. 
I think the boys might have tried to climb all the way to the top if I hadn't convinced them that it was much hard climbing down the slick rock. 
We improved on our original early morning plan the third day and parked at the far end of the loop for an easier departure. Then we caught the shuttle over to the Mirror Lake trail and hiked up the valley.
We also hiked up to the base of Yosemite Falls and had lunch there. Even with the crowds it's a beautiful valley and it was possible to find a few quiet places. 
 After three days in Yosemite, we headed south to visit Kings Canyon and Sequoia, which are managed together.
Campground policy said we could gather "dead and down" wood for the fire...
I might need a bigger axe...
We did not spend much time in kings canyon, but it was nice drive along the river.  
Even in person it's hard to grasp the scale of a Giant Sequoia. I had to use the panoramic setting to get the whole tree.  
Without the sign I would have guessed that first branch was 50 or 60 feet up. I think my brain scaled the distance with the size of the trunk to match other large trees I've been around. 
A fallen branch that shattered the concrete on impact was also handy for scale though I assumed it was a tree until I saw where it broke off the main trunk.
The Johnson family climbing among the roots of a downed sequoia. 
I appreciated the narrow winding roads and stone bridges in the park. It helped the road fit better in the woods.