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Identity theft protection is a big concern for modern consumers. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, the number of data breaches dropped by 23% between 2017 and 2018, but the number of personally identifiable information exposed during those breaches increased by 126%.
What does that mean in real numbers? The ITRC reports that 197,612,748 personally identifiable records were exposed during 2017 data breaches. The massive Equifax breach alone exposed the information of 143 million individuals.
However, a whopping 446,515,334 personally identifiable records were exposed in 2018.
Luckily, there are steps you can take right now to protect yourself and your personal information. Learning how to protect yourself from identity theft is relatively simple — and, thanks to recent legislation, now costs less than ever.
We’ll take you through how to protect personal information online, first by freezing your credit and second by regularly checking your credit report. These two actions are easy to complete, take only a few minutes of your time and provide significant protection against identity theft.
Here’s how to get started.
What is a credit freeze?
A credit freeze prevents potential creditors from accessing your credit report. This makes it much harder for identity thieves to take out new lines of credit under your name. (Your existing creditors can still access your credit report and use it to make decisions about whether to raise or lower your interest rates.)
How does freezing your credit protect you against identity theft?
A credit freeze blocks identity thieves from opening new lines of credit under your name. If an identity thief tries to use your information to apply for a credit card, for example, the credit card company will see the credit freeze on your account and cancel the application process.
How do you freeze your credit?
You’ll need to freeze your credit with each of the three major credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Visit each bureau’s website and follow the instructions to freeze your credit. The process, which involves proving your identity to the credit bureau and requesting a credit freeze, should take only a few minutes to complete.
You can also request a credit freeze over the phone or by mail. If you request your credit freeze online or over the phone, the freeze will be complete in one business day. If you request a freeze via mail, it could take up to three business days after the bureau receives your request for the freeze to go into effect.
After you freeze your credit, you’ll receive a PIN (Personal Identification Number). Keep that PIN safe, because you’ll need it to unfreeze your credit in the future. (If you lose your PIN, here’s what to do.)
Does it cost anything to freeze your credit?
As of September 28, 2018, federal law states that consumers have the right to freeze and unfreeze their credit for free. Prior to this legislation, individual states could determine how much to charge consumers to freeze and unfreeze their credit.
Since you’ll need to unfreeze and refreeze your credit every time you open a new credit card, apply for a mortgage or take any action that requires a credit check, being able to freeze and unfreeze your credit for free is a huge money-saver.
How can you unfreeze your credit?
To unfreeze your credit, simply visit the three credit bureaus and follow the online instructions. If you have your PIN close at hand, the process should be very easy. You can also unfreeze your credit by phone or by mail.
If you unfreeze your credit online or by phone, the bureaus will complete the request within one hour. If you make your request by mail, it could take up to three business days after the request is received.
Do you still need to check your credit report after freezing your credit?
Even though a credit freeze makes it difficult for identity thieves to take out new lines of credit in your name, you’ll still want to check your credit report regularly and review it for any unusual or incorrect information. Credit report errors, whether honest mistakes or indicators of identity theft, can affect your credit score and even prevent you from being approved for credit cards or loans.
If you’d like free access to your credit reports, visit AnnualCreditReport.com. You are entitled to one free credit report per year from each of the three major credit bureaus, so many people choose to review one bureau’s credit report every four months.
You may also want to sign up for credit monitoring, which you can do for free with Bankrate. Credit monitoring helps protect you by alerting you to any significant changes to your credit, such as new credit accounts opened under your name or unusual purchases made to an existing credit account.
What else do you need to know about preventing identity theft?
Freezing your credit and regularly checking your credit report are two big tools you can use to prevent identity theft, but they aren’t the only ways to protect your finances online. After a data breach, for example, you’ll want to change your passwords. You should also learn how to avoid common identity theft tactics such as phishing scams. We’ve got a list of smart moves you can take to protect your identity online, so review the list and put those moves into action.
After all, even though there were fewer data breaches in 2018 than there were in 2017, it only takes one data breach for an identity thief to steal your personal information — but it takes just a few simple steps to make it much more difficult for them to steal your identity.