Post Equifax: Will Free Credit Freezes Help?

freeze your credit

When Equifax announced the historic data compromise that exposed the sensitive personal information of up to 143 million consumers, the company said victims would have access to credit freezes for a month free of charge. This was not exactly a solution to the fresh hell it had just announced.

Frankly, it seemed like a relatively cheeky move considering the staggering number of people who had just learned that they will be looking over their shoulders for a virtual mugger for the rest of their lives. I wouldn’t be surprised if Saturday Night Live re-creates Equifax’s offer of free credit freezes (for a whole month!) as a classic schoolyard drama featuring a bully holding a stolen bike in front of its owner and offering to give it back for a hefty fee.

My first thought was definitely not, “That seems fair.”

And while I can’t speak to whether there was any discussion of sketch comedy in their process, the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) seems to have had a similar reaction. It launched a change.org petition that urged Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax to let consumers freeze, thaw, and refreeze their credit files, free of charge, once per year.

Sadly, this is not a solution either.

The Legislative Angle

Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) recently introduced legislation that would force the Big Three credit bureaus to provide more robust solutions to the 24/7 identity-theft quagmire we now inhabit thanks to the Equifax breach.

One of the main provisos was a legislative version of the ITRC petition: Give all Americans access to free credit freezing (and unfreezing) for life. Additionally, the bill would force the credit bureaus to reimburse any fees collected for freezes purchased after the Equifax compromise was made public.

“Credit reporting agencies like Equifax make billions of dollars collecting and selling personal data about consumers without their consent, and then make consumers pay if they want to stop the sharing of their own data,” Warren said when announcing the bill.

The Freedom from Equifax Exploitation Act is a move in the right direction, a roadmap for the Big Three to provide consumers with more robust fraud protections as well as an additional free annual credit report. (One free report is already a consumer right in the United States. You can check your credit report for free at Credit.com.)

That SNL sketch encapsulates the feeling of the Freedom from Equifax Exploitation Act: credit bureaus shouldn’t be able to profit off the fear generated by their failures to protect our sensitive data.

Freezes Aren’t the Answer

While it is good to get those freezes (if you can figure out how to set them up), a credit freeze is by no means the be-all and end-all answer to the “What now?” reality of 143 million consumers.

Credit freezes do not mitigate all threats.

First of all, you are still vulnerable to attacks on existing accounts. Two easy ways to help diminish this threat is by setting up transaction alerts and opting for two-factor authentication wherever it is offered.

You are also more susceptible to spear phishing emails and texts now, since fraudsters now know where you bank, where you have debt, and who financed your car. They no longer have to guess which bank you use, thereby making the whole process of defrauding you much more expedient—a real win for scam artist productivity. Employment and tax fraud as well as medical/healthcare fraud are also real concerns after the breach.

The best course of action given all these variables is to change the way you think about your vulnerability and practice the Three Ms, which I discuss in my book, Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers and Identity Thieves.

  1. Minimize your exposure. Don’t click on suspicious or unfamiliar links; don’t authenticate yourself to anyone unless you are in control of the interaction; don’t over-share on social media; be a good steward of your passwords; whenever offered, opt for 2-factor authentication; safeguard any documents that can be used to hijack your identity; and freeze your credit.
  2. Monitor your accounts. Check your credit reports religiously; keep track of your credit scores; review major financial accounts daily if possible (better yet, sign up for free transaction alerts from financial services institutions and credit card companies); read the Explanation of Benefits statements you receive from your health insurer; and seriously consider purchasing a sophisticated credit- and identity-monitoring program.
  3. Manage the damage. Make sure you get on top of any incursion into your identity quickly and enroll in a program where professionals help you navigate and resolve identity compromises—oftentimes available for free, or at minimal cost, through insurance companies, financial services institutions, and employers.

The Three Ms are not a solution to the threat of scams in the wake of the Equifax hack, but they are a lifestyle change that can help fend off the inevitable attempts to exploit your identity for ill-gotten gain.

Image: istock

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