One of the easiest, most overlooked ways to prevent criminals from accessing your credit without your consent is to freeze it. The one drawback had been the price to do so.
I took the advice of several experts and froze my credit, and that of my wife’s, about 10 years ago. Although the process was fairly simple, (and I’ll walk you through it) the one thing I hated was that Georgia was one of the states that made me pay $9 to initially freeze it and an additional $9 every time I needed to unfreeze, or “thaw” my credit when applying for a loan or credit card.
Although the $9 was pale in comparison to some states that charged as much as $30, it still wasn’t right that we should have to pay for something that should have been free protection. Thankfully Congress agreed, but it took the embarrassing security breach by Equifax last year, that affected nearly 150 million people, to prompt the government to make all credit security freezes in all states free.
And on Sept. 21, that new law went into effect, hopefully erasing any misgivings you may have about freezing your credit.
Why do it? If you’re like me, and cringe every time you get an unsolicited credit card offer in the mail and fear someone will steal it, send it in, and then open up a line of credit in your name, you’ll sleep better at night after freezing your credit.
The crooks don’t even have to physically steal something. They do it electronically. It’s hard to keep track of the many data security breaches businesses and government entities have reported in recent years. A security freeze is peace of mind protection.
Some people opt for credit monitoring services, paying $10 to $15 a month, but as one consumer advocate suggests, that is a waste of your money. The monitoring reports something that already occurred. It’s like you're alerted to a criminal that is already in the house. But a free credit freeze can stop the criminal from entering the house altogether.
A credit freeze prevents ANYONE from opening up a line of credit in that name because the three credit bureaus have on file that the owner has requested the door shut and will not process that application.
Having your credit frozen can be an inconvenience, as it requires you to either call or go online to temporarily unfreeze it, but this can be a good thing if you’re someone who would like to make it harder for yourself or a family member to act on that impulse to apply for a new credit card.
Here’s how you get started:
The three biggest credit bureau agencies are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Unfortunately, since they are all used at different times to get you approved for credit, you must contact each one to freeze your credit. In the past, you had to pay a fee to each bureau. With things being free now, this will not be an issue, but you still must contact all three to set up the freeze. You can either call or go online (which is easier). You will only have to set things up once.
Call 800-685-1111 or go to https://www.equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services/
Call 888-397-3742 or go to https://www.experian.com/ncaconline/freeze
Call 888-909-8872 or go to https://www.transunion.com/credit-freeze
During the process, you’ll need to provide personal information, including your Social Security number. You’ll also create an account that will give you a user name and password (or PIN), which you will need to write down and make sure you don’t lose or forget. That PIN number will allow you to thaw your accounts when needed. It took me about 15 minutes to set up my three accounts.
There might be a chance that after you freeze your credit, you won’t ever have to unfreeze it again. This would apply to people (perhaps the elderly) who already have credit cards and don’t see a time in the future when they expect to apply for new cards or for any loan or a new job. If that’s you, you’re pretty much done and don’t have to read further.
But in the 10 years I have had my credit frozen, there have been a handful of times when I needed to have my credit checked during job interviews, new service with a phone or cable company, or as I mentioned in an earlier column, when I moved my banking online.
Each time I asked the company who needed to do the credit check, which service: Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion, they were using. In some cases, I got an answer and was able to limit my thaw to a specific bureau, saving me time and money. But in most cases, you may not get an answer, and will need to thaw your credit with all three bureaus.
You simply go to the bureau’s website (it can be done from a smartphone) and log in with your PIN. Within a minute or two, you are able to freeze your credit for a number of days. It is recommended that you set that time to 30 days in order to give enough time for the process to be completed. After 30 days, your credit is again frozen, automatically.
And finally, this from the Better Business Bureau: “A security freeze will not impact your credit score or impair your ability to use your existing credit cards. A freeze locks down your credit reports, not your actual credit.”
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