On September 7, 2017, a data breach considered one of the worst in cybersecurity history, occurred when Equifax, one of the three major consumer credit reporting agencies, reported that hackers had gained access to the confidential information of 143,000,000 people, including social security numbers and dates of birth. This was not a hack of a particular place where you might shop, like Target or Home Depot (where you might be inclined to summarily dismiss the invasion because you don’t hold their credit cards). Rather, the hack through an apparently unpatched Equifax server appears to be the “mother” of all data breaches, given the obvious breadth and unalterable nature of the information obtained.
The good news is, if affected by this or any data breach, you have the ability to “freeze” the criminals’ ability to utilize your information and cause further damage. With news stations and online media blaring recommendations to “freeze your credit” in the wake of this breach, many individuals are confused about what that means and how to go about doing it.
Freezing your credit doesn’t mean you won’t be able to use your currently open credit cards or credit lines. Instead, it means that you freeze or put a hold on your credit report. Therefore, if a criminal attempts to use your personal information gained from a data breach to try to open a new credit account, the potential creditor would be unable to take a peek at your credit report because it is “frozen”. In that case, the criminals’ attempt would be thwarted.
Below are some tips from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about credit freezes and how they work.
How do I place a freeze on my credit reports?
Contact each of the nationwide credit reporting companies:
You’ll need to supply your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number and other personal information. Fees vary based on where you live, but commonly range from $5 to $10.
After receiving your freeze request, each credit reporting company will send you a confirmation letter containing a unique PIN (personal identification number) or password. Keep the PIN or password in a safe place. You will need it if you choose to lift the freeze.
How do I lift a freeze?
In a few states, credit freezes expire after seven years. In the vast majority of states, a freeze remains in place until you ask the credit reporting company to temporarily lift it or remove it altogether. A credit reporting company must lift a freeze no later than three business days after getting your request. The cost to lift a freeze varies by state.
If you opt for a temporary lift because you are applying for credit or a job, and you can find out which credit reporting company the business will contact for your file, you can save some money by lifting the freeze only at that particular company.
Many people already have their credit reports in a constant state of “freeze” and only “thaw” them when and if they are buying a house, purchasing a car, taking out a loan, or opening a credit card account. Carefully consider whether or not this type of proactive approach to protection of your credit information is worth the trouble and cost of freezing and thawing. To be sure, you might be able to sleep better at night knowing that you are in control of your credit report, and not the criminals who are seeking to use your information to open new accounts in your name.