It was more than a year ago that news headlines blared reports that the personal information of nearly half of the U.S. population had been comprised by a massive data breach at the credit bureau company Equifax.
The widely shared advice at the time was for individuals to contact Equifax and the other credit bureaus to “freeze” their accounts. Many people did so, but most did not. In fact, recent surveys show that less than 10 percent of the adult population took action. The process was cumbersome, time consuming, and in many cases, it cost you money.
Those headlines faded and so did the push to get people to freeze their credit accounts.
But now, you have one less excuse to act. Legislation passed by Congress in May has just gone into effect giving everyone free access to freeze their reports.
The Federal Trade Commission says this “makes it more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name.”
That’s because most credit card companies, lenders and other creditors insist on reviewing your credit history before they approve a new account.
A common tactic of identity thieves is to open fraudulent new accounts in someone else’s name, which could put you on the hook for some big-time financial obligations, ruin your credit score, and impose massive headaches for you to undo the damage. Many experts also advise that you should place freezes on the credit files of your children if they are under the age of 16. Identity thieves are just as happy to steal their data (Social Security numbers, birth dates, etc.), and set up fake accounts under their names.
The free credit freezes are in effect at all three of the major credit bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. The public interest advocate U.S. PIRG also recommends freezing your file at a fourth, lesser-known credit agency — the National Consumer Telecom and Utilities Exchange — which is used by some cellphone and utility companies.
And don’t think that you are exempt from the plague of identity theft just because it hasn’t happened to you yet, or because you think you would make an unattractive target because you have limited assets or a poor credit score. That hardly matters to identity thieves.
In addition to making it easier to freeze your credit account, the new law also makes it free to un-freeze it when you want to apply for a new job, new credit card, car loan, mortgage, or even a cellphone account.
After receiving your freeze request, the FTC says each credit bureau will provide you with a unique PIN (personal identification number) or password. Keep that PIN or password in a safe place. You will need it to lift the freeze, even temporarily; and it can be difficult to undo the freeze if you misplace it. By the way, it is not necessary to lift your credit freeze at all the credit agencies. When applying for credit or a job, most companies will tell you which bureau they use, and you can unfreeze at that one only.
While the credit freeze does provide great protection, it is not the be-all-and-end-all. Pre-existing creditors and debt collectors will still have access to your credit reports; as will some law enforcement agencies. And credit freezes are not for all people, all of the time. For instance, if you’re planning to make a large purchase in the near future that would require a creditor to check on your credit, freezing your account will only slow down the process.
Consumer advocates – as well as the advisors here at EKS Associates – also advise that you check your own credit report for accuracy at least once a year. You can go directly to the credit bureaus or use an outside service such as CreditKarma.com. Consider contacting one credit bureau every quarter as a way of keeping tabs on your credit throughout the year. Also check your credit card statements each month for suspicious charges.
In addition to the free freezes, the credit bureaus also offer credit locks and fraud alerts. They might be worth your while in some cases, but they are not free. The agencies usually charge a monthly or annual fee for those services.
Here is how you can contact the credit bureaus online or by phone:
- Equifax Credit Report Services, (800) 685-1111
- Experian Security Freeze Center, (888) 397-3742
- TransUnion Credit Freeze Center, (888) 909-8872
- National Consumer Telecom and Utilities Exchange, (866) 349-5185
If you would like to discuss whether or not freezing your credit is the right move for you, or other issues related to protecting your identity, please do not hesitate to contact your EKS advisor.