On the heels of Hurricane Harvey, and as we prepared for Irma, another storm was announced on Sept. 7th, this one a financial typhoon. To make matters worse, this particular tempest was actually discovered way back in early July, and could have begun as early as mid-May. Hackers hit Equifax, the oldest of the three largest credit reporting agencies that gather and maintain financial and personal information on hundreds of millions of consumers, and tens of millions of businesses worldwide. The fact credit reporting agencies monitor consumers is broadly known, but people tend not to consider these agencies’ role monitoring businesses.
Though it will be more challenging for hackers to make hay with stolen business information, the fact they now have enough personal information on up to 143 million Americans to easily commit identity theft on an unheard-of scale certainly gives one pause. It doesn’t beggar the imagination to envision some enterprising young hacker cross-referencing troves of stolen consumer and business data to see if there might be anything else interesting to exploit.
What might this mean to a worried executive? For a large business, likely somewhat little, so long as they keep a weather eye carefully trained on their accounts, looking for potentially questionable transactions. But for smaller enterprises, particularly those businesses whose finances and bank relations are intimately intertwined with those of the owner of the business, the danger is more concerning and immediate.
The risk of identity theft or credit fraud is daunting enough for a business owner in their personal life, but the realization that their livelihood could also be threatened is an even more urgent call to action. Given the reality that banks offering financing to small businesses often view the business and its owner as one and the same, with personal guarantees for business financing not unheard of, the Equifax fiasco should be viewed by a small business owner as a threat both to personal finances and the fiscal health of their business. Fact is, if a small business owner’s credit rating is damaged, so too can be the ability for a small business to maintain financial liquidity made possible by access to credit. The threat is even greater for a small business or startup where the owner is dependent upon personal credit and credit cards to provide operating liquidity.
What is a small business owner then to do? The same things any prudent consumer should do, with even greater urgency. By promptly protecting yourself, you also protect your business, your livelihood, and your employees.
There are steps to take to help protect your information from being misused.
Visit equifaxsecurity2017.com to find out if your credit and personally identifying information may have been exposed. The jury is still out whether or not accepting Equifax offer of a year of free credit monitoring is a good idea, given the fine print associated with their offer.
Regularly monitor your credit reports from Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — for free — by visiting annualcreditreport.com. Accounts or activity that you don’t recognize could indicate identity theft.
Consider placing a credit freeze on your files to make it harder for someone to open a new account in your name. Keep in mind that a credit freeze won’t prevent a thief from making charges to your existing accounts, and will make your own efforts applying for new credit more cumbersome and inconvenient.
Monitor your existing personal and business credit card and bank accounts closely for charges you don’t recognize.
If you decide against a credit freeze, consider placing a fraud alert on your files with the credit reporting agencies. A fraud alert warns creditors that you may be an identity theft victim and that they should verify that anyone seeking credit in your name really is you.
File your taxes early — as soon as you have the tax information you need, before a scammer can. Tax identity theft happens when someone uses your Social Security number to get a tax refund or a job. Respond right away to letters from the IRS.
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