Equifax (copy) (copy)

Equifax disclosed this month that it exposed vital data on about 143 million people, mostly in the U.S. File/AP

It's very reasonable to be concerned about identity theft following the stunning theft of data from one of the nation's largest credit reporting agencies, Equifax, and there are some free steps people can take to better protect themselves.

The attack by hackers exposed very sensitive financial data including names, birth dates, addresses and Social Security numbers of an estimated 143 million Americans, including an estimated 2.4 million South Carolina residents, as reported last week. That sort of data can be used to open fraudulent accounts or potentially loot existing ones, by faking the owner's identity.

The good news is that without spending any money, there are several things you can do. They range from checking reports from time to time, to locking down your credit so that accounts can't easily be opened in your name.

First, you can see if there's been suspicious activity involving your credit or identity by reviewing credit reports. That's something people should do in any case, regardless of a credit bureau being hacked, and it's free.

You can request a credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — once each year at no charge, under federal law. That means you could potentially request a credit report from a different company every four months, or from all three companies every 12 months.

To get your free credit reports go online to annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228 for phone and mail options. 

Second, you can use a credit monitoring service to alert you to suspicious activity. Most South Carolina taxpayers already have free access to credit monitoring through the end of October, 2018, courtesy of the Department of Revenue data breach in 2012.

South Carolina offered free credit monitoring to businesses, individual taxpayers and their dependents if a state tax return was filed electronically between 1998 and 2012. Currently, just 223,577 people and businesses are enrolled, but you can still sign up for the CSID monitoring service, which is part of Experian.

The state-paid coverage is due to end Oct. 31, 2018. Questions? Call the CSID South Carolina Identity Protection Hotline toll free at 855-888-2743.

The first two steps I mentioned can help you know about attempted identity theft. The next ones can help prevent it, and they are also free.

You can place a fraud alert with credit reporting agencies. That makes it harder to open new accounts in your name because businesses must take extra steps to verify that you are who you claim to be. It's not only free, but simple, because you only have to call one credit bureau to put a fraud alert in place at all three.

The numbers, via the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs, are: Equifax: 800-685-1111; TransUnion: 800-680-7289; and Experian: 888-397-3742.

If at this point you're not sure what to do, consider calling one of those numbers and placing a temporary fraud alert. It just takes one phone call, and it's free under South Carolina law. Then, you can decide whether to take another step.

People who don't anticipate a need to access their credit — who don't plan to apply for a loan, a credit card or anything else that would typically involve a credit check — can freeze their credit reports. Importantly, you'll need to call all three credit bureaus to freeze your reports (at the phone numbers above).

What happens with a freeze is, you'll get a PIN code, and no one can look at your credit reports (which prevents the opening of new accounts) unless you unlock your credit with your secret code. 

It's frustrating to have to take any of these steps to make up for the failures of those who collect and should protect our most personal financial data. Unfortunately, it's increasingly necessary.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.