The fallout from the massive data breach at crediting agency Equifax will last for years. If you're one of the 143 million Americans whose personal information was hacked, your financial records, Social Security Number, driver's license number, and home address may be at risk for identity fraud long after this story drops out of the headlines. Equifax hasn't helped matters, with confusion abounding about whether its breach-checker is accurate or whether consumers give up their rights to a class action suit by using it.
You have options for protecting yourself that don't involve paying Equifax for credit fraud protection. One of the easiest is instituting a credit freeze. They're not free, but they do offer a strong line of defense against anyone trying to do business in your name without your knowledge or consent.
Credit freezes restrict access to your credit report. If an identity thief can't request a credit report, crediting agencies are far less likely to allow them to open accounts connected to your finances. Putting a credit freeze on your accounts doesn't affect your credit score, nor will it keep you from things like signing a lease or applying for a job. You can lift the freeze temporarily at any time, although be sure to check what each company's processing time is for the measure.
If you were hoping for any upsides to the Equifax breach, unfortunately a credit freeze won't affect your debt payments either. But credit freezes are one effective roadblock to identity theft, especially when combined with fraud alerts. To set up a credit freeze, call each of the three major crediting agencies and supply the usual personal to confirm your identity. Those numbers are:
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- Equifax: 1-800-349-9960
- Experian: 1‑888‑397‑3742
- TransUnion: 1-888-909-8872
- A fourth agency, Innovis, may also be worth a call: 1-800-540-2505
Once the creditor determines you're you, they'll send you a PIN through the mail that you can use whenever you need to lift the freeze. The fees vary depending on where you live, but most are in the range of $5 to $10. Your personal information may have resale value on the black market, but even if the Equifax breach may have shaken your trust, there are institutional ways of protecting yourself.