Credit bureau Equifax now says 147 million consumers (the number has been rising) had information stolen in 2017's massive data breach. That's a lot of data in the hands of hackers.
It's not too late to protect yourself by freezing your credit.
The upsides of a credit freeze
A credit freeze restricts access to your credit reports, so it significantly reduces the ability of identity thieves to open new accounts in your name.
A freeze prevents creditors from viewing your credit report, making them unable to assess the risk that you might not make payments on a new account.
Although a creditor could decide to approve an account without a credit report, nearly all companies will choose to deny the application.
A credit freeze won't disrupt your existing accounts. Companies that were able to view your credit reports before the freeze will continue to have access.
A credit freeze does not affect your credit score.
The downsides of a credit freeze
You usually must pay small fees to freeze or unfreeze your credit with the major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
Eight states and Washington, D.C., have made it illegal to charge customers for credit freezes. But residents of the remaining 42 states will have to pay up to $10 per credit agency to freeze their credit reports.
At some point, you’ll want to unfreeze your credit. That’ll cost as much as another $10 per bureau. So, you could find yourself paying $60 to freeze and unfreeze your credit with all three agencies.
How to freeze your credit
To freeze your credit, you’ll need to go to the websites of each of the three bureaus individually and request that your credit be frozen.
You'll provide your name, Social Security number, date of birth, address and other personal information, and will pay the fee if you live in one of the states that allow those.
Each credit reporting agency will supply you with a PIN number. Save these PINs, because you’ll need them later to unfreeze your credit.
How to unfreeze your credit
When it comes time to lift the credit freeze, you’ll need to again contact each credit bureau independently, and provide the respective PIN number or password.
If you live in one of the 42 states where it's OK to charge for a credit freeze, you’ll have to pay the up-to-$10 fees to unfreeze your credit reports.
Credit reporting companies must lift the freeze within three days.
How to unfreeze temporarily
You may request that a credit freeze be lifted just temporarily. You might want to do this if you’re applying for a job, or for a loan through a new creditor.
The lift would allow the employer or lender to access your credit report, and you'd have the freeze restored once your report has been reviewed.
To save money on fees, find out which credit bureau the employer or creditor uses. Unfreeze your report with that agency while leaving the other two frozen.
In the majority of states, a credit freeze will continue indefinitely until you request that it be removed. In a few states, a freeze automatically expires in seven years.
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