Around 148 million consumers -- more than half of America's adult population -- had information stolen in last year's massive breach at the credit bureau Equifax. That's a lot of data in the hands of hackers.
It's not too late to protect yourself by freezing your credit. Credit freezes are now free, thanks to a new law.
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.
Here's how it works: A freeze prevents creditors from viewing your credit report. That makes it difficult for them to evaluate whether you're a good enough risk to be approved for new credit.
Although a creditor could decide to green-light 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. Plus, a credit freeze does not affect your credit score.
MORE: There's a few ways to get a free credit report. Find out how.
What the new law does
In most states, consumers previously had to pay up to $60 to have all three of the major credit reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — freeze or unfreeze their credit.
The new law — which took effect on Sept. 21 — ended those fees nationwide.
You can now freeze or thaw your credit files at any of the three credit agencies free of charge. The law also requires the bureaus to move quickly on these requests.
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. That hasn't changed with the new law; you still have to contact all three separately.
You'll provide your name, Social Security number, date of birth, address and other personal information. Under the law, the freeze must be in place by the next business day.
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 your credit freeze, you’ll again need to contact each credit bureau separately, either online or by phone.
You'll provide the respective PIN number or password, and ask that your files be unfrozen.
Once your request has been made, the credit reporting companies are now required to make the thaw happen within an hour.
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 could have the freeze restored once your report has been reviewed.
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.
MORE: Freezing your credit is one good way to protect your credit, but it's important to pay attention to your credit report and check it on a regular basis. Here's how to get a copy of your credit report.
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