Somehow it just slipped your mind that crooks could have access to your Social Security number? Really? The Equifax data breach is one that 148 million consumers cannot afford to forget.
"Your Social Security number will never come back. It will never be restored to confidential status, if it was leaked," said Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.
One line of defense is a security freeze. Under a new federal rule, a freeze will be free for the all major credit reporting agencies — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. More on that later.
A credit freeze puts a roadblock in front of ID thieves who want to use your Social Security number and other information to open new credit cards, take out car loans and the like in your name.
A credit freeze isn't going to lower your credit score. And a freeze can be lifted if you are applying for credit.
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A reminder of what happened
Remember how outraged everyone was last fall? How we were glued to congressional hearings asking how it happened? Equifax triggered huge news for weeks after the credit monitoring firm disclosed that it had discovered on July 29, 2017, that criminals had gained access to key consumer data from mid-May through July.
The hackers got plenty: Social Security numbers, names, birthdates and addresses. In some cases, Equifax noted that some partial driver's license numbers and limited passport information were stolen, too.
Use some leftover anger: All U.S. consumers — whether they were part of the breach or not — can still sign up to freeze their credit reports right now at Equifax for no charge through June 30.
Pressure from consumer watchdogs drove Equifax to temporarily lift the fees and then extend various deadlines in the wake of the breach. Initially, the deadline was last Nov. 21, then Jan. 31.
See www.freeze.equifax.com for information on how to put a credit freeze in place, temporarily lift or permanently remove a security freeze on an Equifax credit report. (If you want to learn whether your information was exposed, go to equifaxsecurity2017.com.)
Where we are now?
You're not alone if you didn't get a credit freeze yet.
Equifax declined this week to disclose how many consumers have signed up. But various estimates indicate that many consumers didn't take any action.
About 52% of surveyed Americans who were aware of the Equifax data breach said they had done nothing in response to it, according to a Consumer Reports survey detailed in the magazine's June issue. The nationally representative survey involved 1,000 adults.
"Some people may be unclear as to what a freeze does and may think it causes problems if they're trying to get a credit card," said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America.
Other people can just get caught up by life's other challenges. Grant acknowledges that she didn't freeze her report after initially determining that her data and the data of her husband was not compromised.
She'd still recommend that consumers take advantage of free credit freezes.
"Any extra help that breach victims can get is good," Grant said.
Some other points to consider to keep your identity secure:
A crook could use your identity to get a cell phone.
Here's a new consumer warning that's been generating some buzz. A credit freeze at the major reporting bureaus, such as Equifax, might not stop cell phone or utility fraud.
Crooks who have access to your personal information still can hijack a cell phone number — including adding a phone line to your plan — or could even open up a new account using your ID to get their hands on the latest smartphone, a phone they'll later resell.
"And you're stuck paying the bill," warned Carrie Kerskie, director of the Identity Fraud Institute at Hodges University in Naples, Fla.
Granted, consumers can get off the hook for paying if they make plenty of phone calls and file the right paperwork to contest the fraudulent account or charge, she said.
The problem? Some companies that provide cable, electricity, gas, water and phone services aren't going to be looking at your Equifax, TransUnion or Experian credit files.
Instead, they're turning to a credit reporting database called the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange. Most of us have never heard of this outfit. The company is run by Equifax, but is a separate organization from the Equifax credit bureau itself. But Kerskie, who works with ID theft victims, said she saw an increase in problems with phony cell phone accounts among people who had already put credit freezes on their files with the major credit bureaus.
Her suggestion: Make sure you check out that report, too. Call 866-349-5185 for the exchange service to request a free copy of the telecom report. To initiate a security freeze on your the telecom and utilities exchange data report, call 866-349-5355.
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There will be more chances to take advantage of free freezes
A new federal rule that will make credit freezes free was part of a massive banking deregulation bill that was passed this week.
The effective date for the free freeze is 120 days after the bill was enacted May 24.
The law rolls back some banking reforms that were put in place after the financial crisis in 2008-09 and has been criticized by many consumer groups.
A free credit freeze sounds good, yet there are trouble spots. The federal rule will pre-empt some tougher state laws. California's law goes so far as to not allow a potential employer performing a background check or an insurance company to access your credit file if a freeze is in place. Such a strict limit would disappear.
Going forward, consumers would not have to pay anything to freeze or unfreeze their credit. The new freebie could save some consumers money, possibly $5 or $10 for each time they freeze or unfreeze their credit at a bureau.
Here's how to contact the credit bureaus about a freeze (Consumer watchdogs suggest the best thing to do is get credit freezes at all three national bureaus):
If you want a free credit freeze from Equifax, call 800-349-9960 or visit www.freeze.equifax.com.
To get a credit freeze from Experian, call 888‑397‑3742 or visit www.experian.com/freeze.
To contact TransUnion, call 888-909-8872 or visit www.transunion.com/credit-freeze.