How to Freeze Your Credit Reports

Want to prevent potential identity theft and minimize or stop unwanted solicitations, especially from credit companies? Read on to learn how.

Cost: Free in terms of money. Takes one to two hours of effort to set up and five minutes if you need to unfreeze your account.

Data Protection Impact: Very High

It is hard to escape the stories of data breaches as they seemingly appear daily in our news. A data breach means that someone broke into a company’s system or systems and stole personal information contained in the system. Companies are legally obligated by law to report data breaches. Though some companies take steps to mitigate the damage; for example, Equifax offered credit monitoring for a year for free, there are currently few options for you to protect information about yourself once someone has broken into (hacked) a company’s system. The best way to protect yourself and minimize the possibility of identity theft - a real problem in the United States - is to freeze your credit report files. After the huge Equifax data breach in 2017, there was a public outcry which resulted in making the freezing of accounts free to each of us.

Check if you are affected by the data breach by clicking here: http://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/

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When I checked for myself, I found out I was affected. I received the following message (see below) I clicked on “What can I do?” and froze my Equifax account. I then found the freeze request area for the other two bureaus and froze my accounts with them too.

There are three major credit bureaus or credit reporting agencies (CRA). They are private, not governmental agencies.

  • Equifax, publicly traded corporation on the New Your Stock Exchange
  • Experian, publicly traded company (London Stock Exchange)
  • TransUnion, publicly traded corporation on the New Your Stock Exchange

These companies tout themselves as working to provide you better opportunities in life. That is noble, debatable and a bit misleading. They do two primary things: collect and broker vast amounts of personal and sensitive data and perform risk management for companies and governmental agencies. Their principle customers are businesses, not individuals like you and me.

Whether we like it or not, these companies collect information about us: our mortgages, credit cards, car loans and more recently, our cable and phone subscriptions. These companies produce credit scores that indicate whether a financial services company will extend us credit or in some cases, whether an employer will hire someone.

These bureaus provide relatively little information on how they collect data, create algorithms ( to predict behavior – think formulas  - and they are proprietary, and most alarming, scant information about their security and data protection practices. Sadly, when data breaches have occurred, there are have been few, if any, penalties assessed against these companies.

I urge you to protect yourself and your information by freezing your accounts with each of the three credit bureaus.

For general information about the credit bureaus, click here: https://www.usa.gov/credit-reports


STEP BY STEP

Here is how freezing works:

  1. You request a freeze from each bureau - and yes, you have to make your request three times, and it is worth it!

TransUnion: https://www.transunion.com/credit-freeze  Or call: 1-888-909-8872

Equifax: https://www.equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services/.  Or call: 1-800-349-9960.

Experian: https://www.experian.com/freeze/center.html.  Or call: 1-888-397-3742

  1. For each request, the credit bureau will ask you a set of questions to verify your The credit bureau will issue you a PIN code to unfreeze your account. Hold onto this PIN as you will need it to contact the bureau to unfreeze your account. You do this if you are applying for credit, e.g. getting a cell phone subscription (yes, they check your credit score), buying a new car, applying for a mortgage, getting a new credit card, etc.
  2. The credit bureau freezes your account. This means no one can access and use your credit report information unless you “unfreeze” your account. If you know you will need to grant a credit granting company your information, call one or more credit bureau’s requesting a temporary “thaw” or unfreeze. The bureaus will grant it once you provide verification of your identity and the unfreeze code for that bureau. Keep the period to a minimum: four to twenty fours hours.

Bonus Step: Get your free annual credit reports from the three credit bureaus. Click this link: https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action


Has Your Identity Been Stolen?

If you have been a victim of identity theft, then you must provide additional information such as police reports. It is a good idea to submit your freeze request, along with the documentation proving your identity theft, to the bureaus via snail mail. I do not recommend making your request over the phone or web.

​While it may seem to be a pain to go through these steps, the advantage is that no one can pose to be you or use your sensitive confidential financial information. Given that the Equifax breach compromised over 140 million people’s information, I urge you to freeze your accounts immediately if you haven’t done so already. Who knows, you may even sleep better!

Are there other services bureaus offer to protect my data?

Yes, but they typically charge a one time or monthly fee for “monitoring” of various kinds. For example, you can buy a fraud alert service or a credit lock service. The bureaus claim that they are ways to prevent unauthorized access but in my opinion, these methods are not as effective as freezing your accounts. Besides, your bank and credit card companies already monitor your accounts for potential fraud / unauthorized use.

Does the credit freeze guarantee that no one will charge my credit card?

No, you may use your credit cards as you normally do. There is a chance that an unauthorized someone who has obtained your credit card number (by another means than a credit bureau hack) could try to use your card. If you spot unauthorized charges, call or notify your credit card company via their website to report the charges.

Great Resources

https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0497-credit-freeze-faqs

https://www.usa.gov/credit-reports

Credit Bureau Resources - from their websites

https://www.experian.com/blogs/ask-experian/7-things-you-need-to-know-before-freezing-your-credit/

https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/?#what-can-i-do

https://blog.equifax.com/

https://www.transunion.com/frequently-asked-credit-questions

https://www.transunion.com/blog/main

Nalini Indorf Kaplan

Nalini is a privacy technologist and ethicist. She consults and teaches about digital privacy and security.

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