ORLANDO, Fla. –
About three months ago credit report powerhouse Equifax revealed that their servers were breached and the data of more than 143 million consumers was exposed to potential hackers. The reality of the hack: the personal information of almost one of every two Americans has now been stolen.
Hackers with your information can steal your identity, open a line of credit, run up a tab, and stick you with the bill.
Certified Financial Planner Nancy Hecht sat down with News 6 to outline easy steps to help protect you against the possibility of someone using your name to establish bogus credit. What’ll it cost you? In time: about 30 minutes. In cash: about 20 bucks.
What exactly is a credit freeze?
Freezing your credit is a step you can take to make sure no one can open a new line of credit in your name. Alongside the Equifax hack, over the last decade, some of the biggest names in retail and finance have had their websites breached and millions of customer records stolen: Target (2013), Yahoo (2013-2014), eBay (2014), Home Depot (2014), and JPMorgan Chase (2014) just to name a few.
With all of that information possibly in the hands of people who are up to no good, for many Americans, keeping a closer watch on personal finances and taking steps to protect credit is less of an afterthought and more of a priority. Although freezing your credit might seem extreme, for certain people, it could be the difference between staying protected or risking exposure (especially if you’re a primary target because you have good to exceptional credit). Freezing your credit is also a relatively inexpensive way to provide you with peace-of-mind.
A credit freeze is easy to setup (either online or on the phone), but you do need to do a couple of things first to make sure you’re getting the best protection possible.
Step One: Get your credit reports
“If you don’t monitor your financial world, it could be ages before you know that something’s gone wrong,” Hecht told News 6.
And there are a couple of ways for you to get a copy at no charge.
For one-stop-shopping, get online and go to annualcreditreport.com, a certified clearinghouse that provides links to free reports from all three credit bureaus. You can also go to the home page of each bureau and request your annual credit report.
Step Two: Check for mistakes
With credit reports in hand, review your records. If you see something that doesn’t look right, get on the phone and talk to the credit bureau. Mistakes on credit reports aren’t uncommon and once reported, might be easy to correct.
“To keep yourself aware and on top of what is being reported and what you have and making sure it's accurate, that stuff is invaluable,” Hecht told us.
Step Three: Freeze your credit
With reports in hand and information vetted, you’re now ready to make sure no one can open a new line of credit in your name. But freezing your credit isn’t for everyone:
“If you’re in a position where you don’t think that you’re going to be buying something that you’re going to need credit for a long period of time…then a credit freeze is a good idea,” Hecht said.
Who are the perfect candidates: older consumers who have established credit and won’t be making any large purchases (like a home or a car) in the foreseeable future. Who might not benefit from a credit freeze: younger consumers who are still building their credit and need credit checks for phones, cars, landlords, or the financing of big ticket items.
One other thing to consider: freezes are relatively quick to put into place; unfreezing your credit might take a couple of days to kick in once the request goes through. Here’s the bottom line: with a freeze on your accounts, no new lines of credit can be opened until you, the owner, unfreezes them.
In Florida, each credit bureau charges a ten-dollar-fee for each freeze. But because of the summer data breach, freezes for Equifax are free until January 2018.
So your next step - follow these links for each of the credit agencies to start your credit freezes:
·Experian ($10 fee for each freeze/unfreeze)
·Equifax (free until January of 2018)
·Transunion ($10 fee for each freeze/unfreeze)
When we downloaded all three credit reports and set up freezes at each of the credit bureaus, it took us about a half-an-hour from beginning to end. Also note - Equifax may offer you free enrollment (for at least a year) in their TrustedID credit monitoring service if they believe your data was stolen.
If you’re not sure if you’ve been affected by the breach, follow this link Equifax’s TrustedID website to see if they think your data was compromised.
And one last thing: if you have had (or you suspect you’ve had) fraudulent activity on any of your credit accounts, after contacting your bank or credit card issuer, follow these links, call, or send a letter to each of the bureaus to report the problem:
Equifax Consumer Fraud Division, PO Box 740256,
Atlanta, GA 30374
P.O. Box 9554
Allen, TX 75013
TransUnion Fraud Victim Assistance Department,
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19016
Also, call, write, or click on this link to report any case of identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission:
1-877-ID THEFT (877-438-4338)
TDD (toll-free): 1-866-653-4261
600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC 20580