If you’re among half of all Americans whose data was breached through the Equifax hack, you need to be vigilant about monitoring your credit, but chances are low that the information will be used fraudulently.

Besides regularly monitoring your accounts and checking your credit reports, another tool to prevent your data from being stolen is to put a freeze on your credit. You can get the freeze lifted temporarily if you need credit, such as when opening a new credit card or buying a house.

These pointers were shared Wednesday at a Richmond Times-Dispatch Public Square discussion on protecting yourself from consumer fraud. About 70 people attended the event — the RTD’s 74th Public Square.

Ron Lieber, the “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times since 2008, and Tom Gallagher, who led the Better Business Bureau of Central Virginia for 35 years before retiring this year, were the panel’s speakers. RTD Business Editor Gregory J. Gilligan served as moderator.

The breach at credit reporting agency Equifax compromised the data of 145.5 million people, including more than 4 million in Virginia.

It’s possible the hackers could put the information on hold for a year before using it fraudulently, said Lieber, who has written extensively on the Equifax breach.

It’s also possible that foreign operatives are trying to gather data on a large scale not to steal from individuals, but to dig up information that could be used to blackmail people working in government, Lieber said.

“We do not have any indications yet that any of that (Equifax data) has been used to steal things from individuals whose data was exposed,” Lieber said. “Even if your data is stolen, the chances of it being used in some nefarious way is relatively low.”

Yet people still should be vigilant about scams, and when and to whom they give personal information, Lieber and Gallagher said.

“Know the people that you are doing business with,” Gallagher advised. “Check them out before you do business with them.”

Scammers often target the “lonely and needy” and take advantage of people’s emotions, Gallagher said.

Another piece of advice from Gallagher: “If it sounds too good to be true, it is too good to be true.”

Lieber, who has communicated with more than 2,000 readers about the Equifax breach, said people are frustrated that they have no control over personal information reported to the credit reporting agencies.

“We do not actually have the ability to fire Equifax, even if we wanted to,” he said.

Gallagher and Lieber recommended that everyone should get an annual credit report at a site run by the three credit reporting agencies: www.annualcreditreport.com.

“You can do it for free,” Lieber said. “Don’t go to any other website.” Websites with similar names, he said, are not necessarily legitimate.

Joe Tuck of Richmond, who attended the Public Square, said he no longer uses his bank debit card for purchases, except for withdrawals directly from the bank, because his debit card information was stolen when he used it to make a $10 purchase of fishing equipment on eBay. He ended up with a $4,500 withdrawal from his account. The bank covered the loss.

“Use your credit cards to buy things online,” Tuck said. “Don’t use a debit card, because it can come back to haunt you.”

Attendee John Gayle, a consumer rights lawyer in Henrico, warned about sharing personal account numbers to people or companies promising to make deposits in your account. A recent scam in which someone contacted him by email tried to persuade him to use a PayPal account to accept money for an automobile he was selling.

“If you’re paying something by PayPal account, it can be reversed,” he said. “So if somebody pays you for something and you send them the product, and suddenly the money is gone, it is because they have been able to reverse the PayPal account.”

Lieber said he is skeptical about identity and credit monitoring services. “It’s a cash machine — your cash into their machine,” he said.

“I would think about it this way: Do you want to invest in the alarm systems that alert you after the bad thing has happened, or do you want to actually shut the doors and bar the windows with a credit freeze so that bad things don’t happen in the first place?” he said.

jblackwell@timesdispatch.com

(804) 775-8123

Staff writer Carol Hazard contributed to this report.

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