It’s been just over a year 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.
Better yet, as of Sept. 21, 2018, federal law mandates that freezing your credit is now free in all 50 states.
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, new lenders cannot access them without your consent. Unlike a fraud alert, which lasts for one year 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, now, completely free by law. The quickest way to request a credit freeze is online, though you have the option to freeze your reports over the phone or via mail as well. Requests made online or by phone must take effect within one business day, according to the Federal Trade Commission. And once you request to have the freeze lifted (which is also free), the agency must do so within one hour.
You may also freeze your child’s credit if they’re age 16 or under. This can be a smart idea, since children are frequently targeted by identity thieves and typically have no reason to apply for credit when they’re young.
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.
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. However, Consumer Reports notes that a credit lock offers less protection than a legally binding credit freeze.
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.
Until new federal law placing and lifting a credit freeze free in all 50 states,
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.
Credit Freeze vs. Credit Lock
As mentioned, the credit bureaus also offer “credit locks.” Credit locks work in a similar way and can be less intense — and more convenient — than a credit freeze, but they also offer less legal protection and may carry monthly fees. According to the FTC, “If you want a free freeze guaranteed by federal law, then opt for a freeze, not a lock.”
- 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.