In the wake of the widely reported Equifax breach last week, where some 143 Million Americans had their names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and potential driver’s license numbers stolen, here are some basics about securing your credit file. This is not the first time the credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) have been hacked, but it is, by far the largest. The information gained is a treasure trove for identity thieves.
So, what can you do?
There are three things you can do to help combat the misuse of your information.
- File a security freeze, also known as a credit freeze, with the three major credit bureaus. A security freeze blocks any potential creditors from being able to view or “pull” your credit file, unless you unfreeze your file beforehand. With the freeze in place, no new credit will be issued in your name. Additionally, because pulling your credit file can lower your credit score, it has the added benefit of protecting your score in the event someone did try to establish credit in your name. If you live in Alabama, and are not a victim of ID theft, it will cost $10 to place a security freeze at Equifax, Experian, Transunion and $10 to have it lifted for a date range. If you can prove you are the victim of identity theft (police report etc.), the fee is waived. A security freeze remains on your credit file until you remove it. You will need to plan ahead and contact any credit bureau with whom you place a freeze before applying for new credit. It generally takes 24 hours to “thaw” your file (temporarily remove the freeze).
- You can place an initial Fraud Alert on your file. An initial fraud alert can make it harder for an identity thief to open more accounts in your name. When you have an alert on your report, a business must verify your identity before it issues credit, so it may try to contact you. The initial alert stays on your report for at least 90 days. You can renew it after 90 days. It allows you to order one free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit reporting companies. Be sure the credit reporting companies have your current contact information so they can get in touch with you. By law, after a fraud alert is placed on your file with any one of the reporting bureaus, they must share that with the other bureaus. So, you only need to contact one bureau to have an alert placed on all your file.
- You can enroll in a credit monitoring service. This does not prevent someone from establishing credit in your name, but it does notify you immediately when something happens to your file (Address change, credit inquiry, late payments etc.) Most companies that offer this service, also offer quarterly credit reports from the three major credit bureaus. The cost ranges from company to company, and most have an offer to help pay for recovery services when identity theft does occur. These services are useful for those that want to monitor their credit, but who also may need to establish credit (utility services, cable television, renters, new credit cards, home mortgage refinance, etc.) and do not wish to lock it down with a freeze or place a fraud alert every 90 days.
You may also choose to do nothing, and hope nothing happens. In this day and age, that’s a dangerous stance to take.
If you seldom, if ever, need to apply for credit, placing a freeze is probably the best approach. It is certainly the safest approach.
Below are some links and other useful information.