Like many other consumers, I jumped to freeze my credit reports after learning about the Equifax data breach.
Easier said than done.
When a bunch of us go online at the same time to freeze our credit reports, there’s bound to be some issues. I found roadblocks at the major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. All three posted variations on the same theme: We’re experiencing heavy traffic and can’t process a freeze at this time.
Well OK then. Equifax waited more than a month after it discovered the breach to let us know, so another day or two won’t matter. Right? Is freezing your credit even necessary?
“This is too important to give up,” says John Ulzheimer, a credit expert who used to work for Equifax. “I’d advise people to give it a few days as the credit bureaus work through the volume and get caught up.”
If at first you don’t succeed
I tried again the following day, and this time, I was able to put a freeze on my TransUnion credit report; my husband succeeded, too.
It definitely wasn’t easy answering some of the security questions the credit bureau posed, like:
- “In 2001, what county did you live in?”
- “Which of these phone numbers were ever associated with you?”
The questions can reach back as far as the beginning of your credit history. Since I’ve been adulting long enough to have two kids and a mortgage, let’s just say there’s a lot of history there.
But after the questions and paying a $10 fee, my first freeze was in place.
Credit freeze costs vary by state. We live in Florida, where it’s $10 per freeze. Before the breach, freezing our credit with all three bureaus would cost my husband and me $30 each. But, after the initial uproar, Equifax agreed to waive its fees until Nov. 21.
You may ask why it’s necessary to freeze your credit at all three bureaus. The reason: You have to cover all your bases. Lenders don’t necessarily pull credit from each bureau when deciding whether to extend a loan to you.
“Freezing only at one leaves two doors wide open,” says Ed Mierzwinski, director and senior fellow for U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy group.
It will cost us another $60 if we decide to lift the freezes, since Equifax hasn’t offered to pay for thawing those accounts. If we ever refinance, move, get new cars or apply for new credit cards, we’ll have to repeat the process and cough up some money again. Peachy.
Buoyed by my TransUnion success, I tried my hand at freezing my account with Experian. This time, I wasn’t able to say who I made car payments to over 20 years ago so I was shut out.
What to do when you’re frozen out?
“Keep trying,” advises Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. “That security freeze is really key and important.”
The next day, I tried again with Experian and was successful. Worked OK for my husband, too. Still, no dice with Equifax.
I found a way to save money, as well. Experian will instantly rebate $5 back on that $10 fee if I use the Ebates portal.
Finally, an update: Late Friday afternoon, I froze my credit report at Equifax. My husband still can’t get through.
A security freeze alternative
If you don’t like the idea of shelling out money for freezes only to have to open up your wallet again to unfreeze, you can place free fraud reports with each of the burueas, although you’re likely to hit the same roadblocks with Equifax to actually getting through. Although not as fool-proof as a credit freeze, they’re better than nothing.
“We have the right under state law, in every state, to freeze our reports. And we have the right under federal law to place fraud alerts, if you’re choosing that alternative,” Ulzheimer says.
Beyond a freeze
I also wanted to know if there’s been any suspicious activity on my credit report. Since the implementation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, each of the three big credit bureaus have to provide a free credit report every 12 months upon request. Again, TransUnion and Experian for the win. And then there’s Equifax.
Equifax, which had what’s turning out to be among the largest security breaches in history, wants me to mail in a copy of something with my entire Social Security number on it along with proof of my address just so I can get the free credit report – one that the company is required to furnish me. Isn’t that exactly the type of information needed for identity theft? Uh, no thanks.
There are other ways to help protect yourself from the risks of the Equifax breach. We plan to keep a careful eye on all of our bank, credit card and other financial statements and be vigilant about any unfamiliar charges.
Anything you don’t recognize, no matter how small the amount, should be investigated. You never know if someone is just testing the waters by making a small purchase on your account.