It’s been just over six months since the now infamous Equifax data breach of 2017. To refresh your memory, this massive data breach potentially exposed the personal information of some 145.5 million U.S. consumers. The exposed data included names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth.
Of course, the Equifax data breach is not the only reason you need to be concerned about the security of your personal information. While Equifax’s massive hack was understandably upsetting to consumers, it’s certainly not the only data breach that may have put your personal information at risk. The disturbing truth is that nearly 1,600 data breaches were announced publicly in 2017 alone, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center.
The need to protect your credit from identity thieves only becomes more important with each passing year. Thankfully there are a number of actions you can and should take to protect your personal information and your credit from bad guys. And of all the credit protection strategies out there, the most effective one by far is a credit freeze — especially when you suspect your personal data has been compromised.
How a Credit Freeze Protects You
According to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, your credit reports can be accessed by anyone who’s deemed to have a “permissible purpose” to request them — that includes lenders who wish to view your reports as part of an application for new credit. The trouble for lenders is that they can’t easily tell if it’s you who’s applying for a new loan or credit card — or a crook who’s fraudulently applying for financing in your name.
A credit freeze, also called a security freeze, can help to solve this problem. When you place a freeze on your credit reports, you essentially lock your reports so that new lenders cannot access them without your consent. Unlike a fraud alert, which lasts for 90 days and simply requires businesses to verify your identity before issuing new credit to you, a credit freeze essentially takes your credit reports out of circulation until you say otherwise.
If you’ve placed a freeze on your three credit reports and an identity thief tries to open a fraudulent account in your name, the lender who attempts to process the phony application wouldn’t be able to access your credit report; they’ll get a message back that your report has been frozen.
As a result, the application will be denied, preventing the fraudulent account from being opened. The thief may still be in possession of your personal data, but your credit freeze will prevent them from using that data against you to open unauthorized accounts.
How to Freeze Your Credit
Placing a freeze on your credit reports is simple and inexpensive. The quickest way to request a freeze is online, though you have the option to freeze your reports over the phone or via mail as well.
If you do opt to freeze your credit reports, it’s also important that you do so separately at each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. If you neglect to freeze your credit with all three bureaus, you’ll still be vulnerable.
Below are some links to help you get started putting your credit reports on ice at each credit bureau:
Equifax Credit Freeze
- You can freeze your credit with Equifax here. In the wake of their massive data breach, Equifax is waiving any fees on credit freezes through June 2018.
TransUnion Credit Freeze
- To freeze your credit with TransUnion, start here. TransUnion also allows a less intensive credit lock, which you can turn on and off in real time online.
Experian Credit Freeze
- Freeze or thaw your Experian credit reports here.
Once you place a freeze on your credit reports, you’ll be issued or be asked to choose a PIN. Remember to save all three of your PINs, because you will need them in the future to “thaw” your reports when you wish to apply for credit yourself — or in any other situation where someone will need to access your credit reports. In some states, a credit freeze expires after seven years, but in most cases, it lasts until you request the freeze to be lifted.
Depending on your situation, you may be required to pay a fee to both place AND lift a credit freeze. Fees can vary per state, but they generally fall between $3 and $10.
That’s a small price to pay to avoid identity theft, especially if you believe your data has been compromised. And if you’ve already been a victim of identity theft (and have a police report to prove it), then placing and lifting a credit freeze can be done free of charge.
- The Other Big Data Hacks Nobody’s Talking About
- Identity Theft Basics
- Why You Need to Check Your Credit Report With All Three Credit Bureaus
John Ulzheimer is an expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books on the topic and has been interviewed and quoted thousands of times over the past 10 years. With time spent at Equifax and FICO, Ulzheimer is the only credit expert who actually comes from the credit industry. He has been an expert witness in over 230 credit related lawsuits and has been qualified to testify in both federal and state courts on the topic of consumer credit.