It was only about a year ago we were quaking in our boots about stolen identities in the wake of the massive Equifax data breach. At the HerMoney podcast, we rushed to get security expert Frank Abagnale (yes, that Frank Abagnale) on the horn to ask him what to do. Among his advice: Freeze your credit. Do it now. Don’t worry about the fact that it costs a few bucks.
But evidently the cost or the hassle, or maybe both, stood in the way for a lot of people. Only 5% to 8% of people have frozen their credit according to research reports. That’s not nearly enough says Ted Rossman, industry analyst for CreditCards.com. “Fees were as high as $30 to freeze and unfreeze in some states,” he explains.
But, poof, they’re gone. And so are your excuses. A new federal law passed after the Equifax debacle makes it free to freeze – and unfreeze – your credit in all 50 states. And, as someone who froze immediately (and made my family do the same) and recently unfroze to apply for a credit card, let me take a moment to address the hassle factor: It was no big deal. Doing it the first time, which requires getting in touch (online is easiest) with all three bureaus individually, took about 30 minutes total. Unfreezing took about 10. And the new law maintains that it has to happen in less than an hour, so if you’re in a hurry you won’t have long to wait. As part of the unfreezing process, you tell the bureaus how long to leave the freeze off, then it automatically goes back into place. “It’s more of a lift,” says Rossman, “than a process of unfreezing and refreezing.”
So if you’re among the 9 in 10 people who have yet to freeze, let’s get on with it shall we?
Here’s what you need to do:
- Contact all three bureaus. Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. These links will take you exactly where you need to go, no Googling required. If you’d rather let your fingers do the walking the old-fashioned way, you can reach Equifax at (800) 685-1111 or (800) 349-9960 for New York residents, Transunion at (888) 909-8872 and Experian at (888) 397-3742.
- Keep your PINs at hand. When you freeze your credit you’ll get PINs that you need to have to unfreeze later. Write them down, put them in a safe place or do whatever you have to do to make sure you can get at them if and when you need them. All the bureaus have procedures to follow to get them, but Equifax requires a request by mail including proof of identity. That may be time you don’t have. Rossman also says it may not be as easy as the bureaus say. “I have a coworker who lost her PIN,” he says. “It’s been a huge hassle to retrieve it. She’s had to make multiple calls. That’s a pain point, too.”
- Do it for you – and your kids. The new law allows parents to freeze credit for children under age 16. It’s a good idea. Last year, more than 1 million children were victims of identity theft, many of them a form called “synthetic” identity theft where a child’s pilfered Social Security number is combined with other data from a real adult to apply for credit. The reason it’s so important for kids is that an adult is likely —sooner or later — to apply for credit and discover that there’s a problem in her file. When a child’s Social Security number is compromised, the fraud can go undetected for years.
- Pull your child’s credit and your own. Finally, let this be a reminder that you should be checking your credit regularly as well. This, too, you can do for free at annualcreditreport.com. Each person is eligible to pull one credit report from each of the bureaus each year. If you pull one every four months on a rotating basis, you’ll have eyes on your credit fairly often throughout the year. As for your child, the mere existence of a credit report for a child who has never applied for credit is a sign that something is amiss. Knowing about the problem is the first step in clearing it up.