Each year, we see a persistent flow of companies who make headlines for allowing personal data to be stolen. In 2019, the American Medical Collection Agency, a debt collection agency focused specifically on medical care, suffered a security failure that lasted 8 months. While you may not have experience with the AMCA, their ties link to well-known companies like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics who collectively reported that 19.7 million people were exposed to data theft.
The Equifax breach of 2018 remains one of the most significant breaches because it also included social security numbers and happened at a credit reporting agency, which is one of the companies we count on as consumers to keep our data safe.
With an ever-expanding internet and ever-increasing personal information required by many institutions, the problems with identity theft are not going away any time soon. We can all practice a bit of due diligence in terms of creating complex passwords and avoiding anything that seems threatening, but there is always the risk of someone getting our information and using it criminally. As a means of addressing this risk, freezing your credit file is a useful and free way to limit your exposure, especially when you’ve already been a victim of identity theft.
Essentially, freezing your credit file is designed to keep anyone from opening an account unless you allow access by a temporary “thaw.”
The credit bureaus will not release any of your credit information without prior approval. For example, if someone were to steal your identity and attempt to open a credit card in your name, the lending agency should first run a credit report check to determine your credit worthiness. The reporting agencies cannot provide this report for a frozen account without you unfreezing the account ahead of time, and the lending agency should deny the application.
There is no cost for this process, and it only requires a small number of steps. As of September 2018, you can freeze your credit file for free at the three largest credit reporting services (Experian, Equifax, and Transunion). You have to visit each of the main credit bureaus to freeze the report, and each bureau has a service page where you can walk through the process (the addresses are included below). You will have to create a free account (if you haven’t already).
Temporarily thawing the credit freeze is also a fairly easy process. Once you request a freeze, the credit bureaus will assign you a personal identification number that will allow you to thaw the account quickly via their online system or a phone call, and moving ahead of the credit report request will help you know which report to thaw.
For example, if you were going to purchase a new car, you would allow the dealership to check your credit worthiness by thawing your account for a specified period of time, thus temporarily allowing the credit bureaus to provide this information to this specific group. The best approach would be to ask the dealership what institution they use for financing. With this information, you can contact that credit bureau and request a thaw. The process typically takes 24 hours, but you should also leave time for any unforeseen delays.
Given the extra work in thawing a credit report for credit approval, you can also request a fraud alert from the big three credit reporting bureaus. A fraud alert is not as stringent as a credit freeze, but it does offer a level of protection. In this situation, anyone checking your credit will see that your account has been alerted for a possible fraud. The institution checking your credit should confirm that you are the one requesting the service. The emphasis falls on the credit checking group in this case, so there is still a chance that your identity could be used to secure credit for someone else.
The credit bureaus cover most applications for loans, but you should also be on the lookout for people attempting to open checking and/or savings accounts in your name. Most banks use a service called ChexSystems to verify your identity, and you can place a security freeze on this account as well. The system at ChexSystems operates similarly to those used by the credit bureaus.
While there is no foolproof way to protect your identity, regularly checking your credit report allows you to monitor any activity.
Visit www.annualcreditreport.com to request a free yearly credit report. If you have open accounts with larger banks, they may offer a credit monitoring service. For example, Chase offers a service called MyCreditJourney that provides weekly updates of your credit score and sends alerts whenever there is an inquiry on your account.
Credit freezes do not impact existing accounts, so if your identity has been stolen, there are a number of steps you still need to walk through that begin with visiting www.identitytheft.gov. Here you can set up fraud alerts and receive the necessary FTC Identity Theft Report along with a list of the next steps to take to clear these charges from your account.
While identity theft continues to grow in terms of complexity and frequency, these free services allow you to protect yourself more effectively with only a little bit of extra time spent.
Note: This article addresses the big three credit bureaus. However, if you find that the organization uses another bureau (e.g. Innovis), it likely offers a similar free credit freezing service.
First Published: August 22, 2019
- Lily Hay Newman. “The Biggest Cybersecurity Crises of 2019 So Far. Wired. July 5, 2019
- Brian Krebs. “Credit Freezes are Free: Let the Ice Age Begin.” KrebsonSecurity. September 18, 2018
- Transunion FCRA Free Freeze
- Experian Security Freeze
- Equifax Consumer Services Center
- ChexSystems Consumer Assistance. Click “Security Freeze Information” in the box labeled “Identity Theft.”