In 2017, identity fraud hit an all-time high, with 16.7 million victims in the U.S., according to Javelin Strategy & Research. Data breaches also hit a new high, with 1,579 reported breaches affecting nearly 179 million personal and financial records.
What You Can Do
One way to keep identity thieves from stealing your information is to "freeze" your credit report. A credit report freeze restricts access to just your existing creditors and can only be lifted at your request, making it harder for someone obtain credit in your name fraudulently. In the past, a credit freeze cost $3 to $10 per credit bureau, plus additional fees to temporarily or permanently "unfreeze" your credit.
Now, thanks to new federal legislation that went into effect on September 21, you will be able to freeze your credit, protecting your personal and financial information – for free. The new law, dubbed the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, removes the fee requirement nationwide at all three major credit bureaus and allows consumers to “unfreeze” their files, temporarily or permanently, without a fee. It also extends short-term fraud alerts to one year, versus the old 90-day limit. Placing a fraud alert on your credit file requires lenders to contact you to verify your identity when they receive an application for credit in your name.
How to Freeze Your Credit for Free
Freezing your credit file is simply a matter of contacting each of the three credit bureaus and requesting it. All three bureaus allow you to freeze your credit by phone or online:
When electing to freeze your credit, you’ll need to provide your name, Social Security number, birth date, address and phone number. If you're freezing your report online, you'll also be asked to create an account using your email address and a unique password. From there, you just need to verify your identity and you’re set.
Unfreezing Your Credit
Once your credit's frozen, you'll have to make another request to unfreeze it, but again, it won’t cost you anything. Just be sure to consider the timing when unfreezing your credit file.
The new law mandates credit freezes be lifted in less than an hour, but give yourself a longer window if you're planning to apply for credit soon after. For example, if you're car shopping, lift the freeze three business days before applying for a loan. The additional time will allow you to avoid the odds of being caught in limbo waiting for financing approval because your credit file is inaccessible.
The Bottom Line
While free credit freezes aren't a foolproof barrier against identity theft, they can help to keep your information out of the wrong hands. You can also strengthen your defenses by checking your credit regularly, reviewing bank and credit card statements for suspicious activity and setting up bank and credit card alerts to notify you of new transactions. The more proactive you are about safeguarding your information, the greater the chances of preventing identity theft.
Source: "Now You Can Freeze Your Credit File for Free," www.investopedia.com.