Credit freeze: What is it and should you do it?

Equifax hack: What you need to know
Equifax hack: What you need to know

Consumers are looking for greater protections for their personal and financial information in the wake of the Equifax data breach. Many have decided to take precautions and put their credit on ice: a credit freeze.

A credit freeze aims to block anyone from opening new accounts in your name. The catch is that the block applies to legit inquires, too. So it's not a great idea if you're shopping for a home or an auto loan. But when you're not looking to take out any loans or open any lines of credit, it can be a financial lifesaver.

The Equifax hack, in which the names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and driver's license numbers of 143 million people were exposed, may create a new normal in which protections previously viewed as cumbersome -- like credit freezes -- are now a valued line of defense.

"A security freeze is the most effective measure against 'new account' identity theft, because it stops thieves from using the consumer's stolen information," says Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.

Here's what you need to know about freezing your credit:

What is a credit freeze?

A credit freeze limits who can see your credit report information. The goal is to prevent anyone from opening any new accounts. It doesn't damage your credit or stop your credit report from evolving by your own actions.

Your credit information will still be released to your existing creditors and any debt collectors who may come calling.

But, if you want to open new lines of credit, you'll need to lift the freeze first. This can be done temporarily, either for a set time or for a particular party, like a landlord or lender.

The costs to freeze and lift the freeze on your credit vary based on where you live and for each credit reporting agency, but commonly range from $2 to $10 per agency.

If you're a resident of certain states -- like Maine or South Carolina -- it's free.

In response to public outcry, Equifax announced that fees to freeze your credit will be waived for the next 30 days.

But even that doesn't totally protect your information since your data isn't fully frozen until it is on ice at all three credit bureaus. The other bureaus have their own fees. It's also unclear whether Equifax would still charge you a fee to lift the freeze. The company did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Consumer protection organizations like the National Consumer Law Center are further calling for Equifax to waive the fees for credit freezes at all three credit bureaus.

How is it different from fraud alerts or other credit monitoring?

The credit reporting companies do little to make getting a credit freeze easy: you have to ask each of them individually, pay a fee (usually) to put it in place, ask each of them specifically to lift the freeze and often pay another fee. That's because your data is the product that they sell to other people and companies. If you freeze it, it isn't as valuable.

As such, they are more likely to offer you fraud alerts and other credit monitoring products. These are services that will let you know when someone is looking at your credit and may contact you about a new account opened in your name. It's helpful, but it is often after the fact.

"Equifax is offering something that it says functions like a credit freeze," says Mike Litt, consumer program advocate with US Public Interest Research Group. "The problem is that it is incomplete protection and it only lasts for a year. What we're recommending is that people don't bother with the package Equifax is offering and just place freezes with the three credit bureaus instead."

Can I still get a credit card or loan?

Sure. When your credit is frozen you can continue to operate your financial life just as you typically would. The only notable thing is that you will need to notify the credit bureaus to lift the freeze before you ask a lender to approve you for credit.

If you are able to determine which credit agency your potential lender is using to run your credit, you can even save yourself some fees by just requesting the freeze to be lifted on that one.

The reporting agencies tell you that this may delay a legitimate credit request.

But for those who don't feel comfortable with the way the credit reporting agencies are handling their treasure trove of personal information, a notification to the agencies and day or so delay may be a fair price to pay for added security.

The agencies advise you to plan ahead and lift a freeze a few days before actually applying for new credit.

How do I freeze my credit?

With millions of people feeling vulnerable after the hack and scrambling to secure their most important information, getting a credit freeze has been more difficult than usual in the past few days. Users on Twitter report trying again and again to secure credit freezes, with both the website and phone systems failing.

Keep trying.

To set up your own credit freeze, go to the freeze page at each credit agency's website individually: Equifax, TransUnion, Experian.

You will be asked to provide information. If you do not want to put your information into another automated computer system, you can call the agencies directly. Usually you are given a PIN number, which is your key to lift the freeze. Do. Not. Lose.

In addition to being subject to your state laws, the cost may also vary by agency.

Often there is no charge for victims of identity fraud to add or lift a security freeze. Rules and fees at TransUnion, Experian and Equifax are similar, with the exception of Equifax's being waived for the next 30 days.

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