Freezing credit and signing up for free credit monitoring are among strategies a University of Wyoming Extension specialist recommends in response to the massive hack of the consumer credit reporting agency Equifax.
Information for about 145 million people was compromised, potentially exposing names, addresses, birthdates and Social Security numbers.
Equifax has taken a few steps to help people protect their identities, said personal financial management specialist Cole Ehmke. All Americans can sign up for free credit monitoring at www.equifax.com at the Equifax Cybersecurity Incident link. The monitoring is effective for all three credit bureaus, including Experian and TransUnion. Enrollment ends Nov. 21.
Equifax has also promised to waive the fee to freeze credit reports through the end of January.
A credit freeze limits access to a credit report, limiting potential creditors from accessing credit files, so the creditor is less likely to issue credit, said Ehmke.
“The end result is that identity thieves are less likely to open an account in your name,” he said.
There is a charge each time a credit report is frozen and also when the freeze is lifted. The cost in Wyoming is $10. Equifax has waived this fee until the end of January, said Ehmke.
He recommended freezing credit at all three agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – as the best identity theft protection.
“You’d need to do it with each of the main credit reporting agencies for both yourself and for a spouse,” said Ehmke. “Remember that you’ll have to “unfreeze” your report temporarily if you want to open a new line of credit yourself.”
He said Equifax has announced a new service called a credit lock, which they say will launch by Jan. 31.
“Offering a credit lock is a more significant offer than Equifax’s previous ones of one free year of credit monitoring or its promise to waive the fee to freeze your credit through the end of January, since it is free for life, but it offers slightly less than a credit freeze,” Ehmke said.
A credit lock is similar to a credit freeze in that it limits access to a credit report, but a credit freeze offers more protection since law guarantees it, he said. Lifting a credit freeze can take between 24 and 48 hours, but not every credit lock program is instantaneous and not every credit lock program is free.
“I would certainly recommend signing up for the one year of Equifax’s credit monitoring service, which they call TrustedID Premier, and I would definitely consider credit freezes. Unfortunately, doing both a freeze and a lock isn’t possible,” Ehmke said.
So far, 7.5 million people have signed up for the free year of credit monitoring Equifax offered following the breach, but after that, consumers will have to pay Equifax $17 a month to continue the service.
“But I would be hesitant to pay to do anything that I can do myself for free,” Ehmke said.
Regularly checking credit reports from the three agencies is one strategy people can take with credit reports and identity theft. Federal law provides free access to each once a year (at www.annualcreditreport.com). There is overlap in the content of the reports, so checking a different one every four months gives a rolling sense of what is in them across the year, he said.
“Monitoring credit reports helps identify whether a horse got out of the corral. A freeze might be more like helping to keep the gate closed,” Ehmke said.
He cautioned credit freezes will not deter non-credit related frauds such as tax refund identity theft and health insurance fraud.
“For that, vigilance is about all we can recommend,” Ehmke said.