By now you have likely heard that Equifax has had a tremendous security breach. This type of breach puts millions at risk for identity theft. It can be overwhelming and difficult to figure out how to handle these types of breaches, especially since they are becoming more commonplace. How do you protect yourself? One way that can help is placing a security freeze on your credit reports. I’ll explain what this is, why we did it and how you can do it too. (Note: This is my personal opinion as a mom who has experienced identity theft)
What is a security freeze?
A security freeze prevents anyone from accessing your credit. For example, someone gets ahold of your information and tries to open a credit card at Best Buy. Best Buy receives the application and when it is put in the system, Best Buy will receive a note that the credit file has been frozen. The credit cannot be processed without the freeze being lifted. Sadly this exact experience happened to my husband and I. Thankfully we had a fraud alert and freeze which stopped the card from being opened. We have a fraud alert on our accounts as well so they always have to verify with us if something new is being opened.
Two years ago we had our house burglarized. We thought we were being smart to have a small fire safe in the house with all our personal documents. While it would have been protected from a fire, the burglars picked it right up and took it with them. Eventually they got into the safe and tried to use our identity documents to open a cell phone and a credit card. This was within 24 hours of the documents being stolen. Thankfully I had already placed a fraud alert and freeze on everything. The accounts were not opened and the day was saved.
Note: There may be a fee associated with freezing your credit if you are not the victim of identity theft. We had to provide a copy of the police report and were not charged.
What If I Need to Unlock It?
When you freeze your credit you are given a unique pin #. This pin # allows you to unlock it as needed. We generally do this over the phone and it takes about 2 minutes to go through the automated prompts. Easy peasy.
If you lose it you can go through steps to retrieve a new one.
Note; There may be a fee associated in your state with unfreezing your credit if you are not the victim of identity theft. Ours is waived due to our identity theft.
What About Minors?
Technically minors don’t have credit reports, hopefully. You can ask the credit bureaus to check and make sure your minor child doesn’t have one on file. If not, you can leave it at that. If you’d like to lock the credit reports for minor children (we did!) then you will need to fill out some paperwork to request the lock. The credit agencies will create a file for your minor child and then lock it. Since our children had identity information stolen we felt we should freeze both our kids’ reports. Often times people won’t know that the identity of a child has been stolen because it isn’t common to look and see.
Why Would I Want to Freeze Anything?
We were victims of identity theft which made this a no-brainer for us. If you have not been a victim of identity theft and are looking into freezing your reports it can help prevent an occurrence. Here is the bottom line for me..identity theft is a total pain, a huge amount of paperwork and it can be become a huge financial and legal burden. A credit freeze provides some peace of mind. Also, if you want to make yourself second guess opening up that extra credit card, this can be a great way to keep yourself financially minded as well.
How Do I Do It?
There are three different credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You will need to freeze your reports for each person at each of these agencies. (Our family has 4 people so 4 people x 3 agencies = 12 requests)
These sites are pretty good about walking you through what to do and submit.
- If you are the victim of identity theft make sure you have your police report or other report available to submit. You may have to submit via mail. I found myself continually making copies so I’d recommend getting a few copies all at once.
- Don’t count on this being over the phone. I have found online ways or via mail to be much less frustrating than dealing with any of the agencies over the phone.
- Be very organized. Very very organized. Keep notes about when you are mailing things and copies for yourself.
- When you submit things via mail include a letter with a numbered list of what you want them to do for you. Example of what I used. Feel free to use this as a template. I found using a specific set of instructions was easier for the agency to decipher and follow. It took 4 attempts for me to have Experian finally freeze my children’s file. They will send correspondence by mail and if something is missing or incomplete in your initial request they don’t keep the initial request so you have to start all over again. Read very carefully what they are requiring. There is a lot of paperwork involved.
- Keep a list of everything you’ve mailed and as you get letters back from the agencies with completion details then check it off the list. We are a family of 4 so that was 12 different requests I was putting in. It started to get really confusing.
- Send freeze requests for each person individually. I wanted to freeze my daughter’s credit and also mine at the same time so I sent it in the same envelope thinking that would cut down on shipping. Don’t. It confused the agency and they froze nothing and just sent me a copy of my credit report.
Theoretically, it should be a very quick process if you do it all together, keep yourself organized and send detailed letters with each request. If you are interested in your state’s laws regarding credit freezes you can check out this list.
My personal opinion regarding keeping identity paperwork at home is that you need to keep it in a fire safe that can be securely bolted to the floor. Don’t count on it being “hidden enough.” Lock it down. They can be expensive so if you’d rather you can find a bank near you and get a safe deposit box. This is what we did. It costs $50 a year and we keep everything there – birth certificates, social security cards, passports, etc. When we had to replace passports after our burglary it cost over $500! It isn’t cheap or easy to replace this stuff and the ramifications are long-lasting. Now that our identity information has been stolen and is out in the world there is no telling when it could surface and be used – perhaps years down the road. This is one of the main reasons we opted to do a security freeze.
We have not purchased any software to track our credit, though all the agencies offer it. You can also opt to get an annual free credit report, which is authorized by Federal Law and a great way to keep tabs on your credit.
I personally, as a worried mom, recommend it. I think the fees are small unless you are constantly applying for credit cards and loans. For us, the peace of mind has been worth it for our family.
If you are concerned about the Equifax Credit Breach, here is some additional information from the FTC. It can be confusing seeing all the news articles floating around about what to do and what not to do. I thought this list was helpful.