Lisa Weintraub Schifferle
Attorney, FTC, Division of Consumer & Business Education
Many people have had very sensitive personal information exposed in the Equifax breach — Social Security numbers, account numbers, even drivers’ license numbers. Equifax is offering free credit freezes until January 31, 2018. The company also will refund fees to anyone who already paid for freezes since September 7, when it announced the breach. If you’re thinking of placing a freeze, read this first.
A freeze means that no one (including you) can access your credit file until you unfreeze it, using a PIN or passphrase. That makes it harder for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name.
To be effective, you must place a freeze with all three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Transunion and Experian. That’s because when a thief tries to take out new credit, a business can pull your credit report from any of the three agencies. If you’ve only frozen your Equifax file and the business checks with Experian or Transunion, your Equifax freeze does you no good.
There’s also cost to consider. A freeze can cost you money every time you freeze and unfreeze your file. While Equifax will let you place or lift a freeze for free until January 31, 2018, TransUnion and Experian are not offering free freezes. And, as of now, Equifax’s offer will end on January 31, 2018. That means that any time you need to get new credit, you’ll need to lift the freeze, then place it again, with each of the three agencies — at a cost of $5 to $10 per agency each time, depending on your state’s law.
But wait, you say, I heard that freezes are free for identity theft victims. So, will I get free freezes from the other two agencies too? No. An identity theft victim is someone whose information not only has been exposed, but also has been misused. If you’re a data breach victim, your information is at greater risk of misuse but unless that happens, you’re not an identity theft victim and not entitled to free freezes on that basis.
To learn more about credit freezes, read Credit Freeze FAQs and Extended Fraud Alerts and Credit Freezes. If you want a free credit freeze from Equifax you can call them at 800-349-9960 or visit them online at www.equifaxsecurity2017.com.
If you’re looking for an alternative to a credit freeze, consider a fraud alert. Although a fraud alert won’t lock your credit like a freeze does, it will tell anyone who runs your credit that they should check with you before opening a new account. Fraud alerts are free but they end after 90 days, unless you remember to renew them. You may also want to sign up for Equifax’s free credit monitoring, which lets you know about changes to your credit file. But remember that the free credit monitoring doesn’t stop someone from opening accounts in your name. Also, it lasts only one year and the threat of identity theft relating to the breach is likely to last a lot longer than that.