Answers to your questions about credit freeze and credit monitoring

equifax-credit-hack

Our bulletin over the weekend recommending that you freeze your credit reports after the Equifax breach prompted quite a response from media and clients.

Daisy Maxey at the Wall Street Journal interviewed us about the ways in which consumers can deal with the fallout from the Equifax data hack.

We also spoke to Stan Bunger and Susan Leigh Taylor of KCBS News Radio in San Francisco on the subjects of credit monitoring, the pros and cons of a credit freeze and how to manage a fraud alert.  Audio of interview  Transcript of interview

We heard from clients frustrated and confused by the information provided by other media sources and the credit bureau websites.  Here are answers to your questions:

What's the difference between a credit freeze, credit monitoring and a fraud alert?

A credit freeze completely locks your account - current creditors can still your report, and you can still see your report, but if someone tries to open an account in your name, that attempt will be blocked.  The fee to freeze the account is small, and may be $0 in some states.  There is a fee of $3-10 to unfreeze your account (and you must be sure to have the PAPER copy of your PIN number to unlock the account.)

Credit monitoring allows banks, credit card companies, and auto-lenders to look at your credit report, but you will be alerted when such requests are made.  Costs range form $10-$30 month, with the more expensive services including scans of illicit networks where consumer data is bought and sold.

A fraud alert last only 90 days and must be renewed periodically.  Your credit report is still accessible, but any business trying to access your report must go through additional verification steps.  There is no cost to place a fraud alert.

Do I have to subscribe to credit monitoring in order to do a credit freeze?

No, though that is not obvious from the credit bureau websites.  These businesses are trying to bundle the free or cheap credit freeze with the recurring expense of credit monitoring.

These numbers are the fastest way to apply the freeze WITHOUT buying the monitoring services:

  • Equifax - 1-800-349-9960
  • Experian - 1-888-397-3742
  • TransUnion - 1-888-909-8872

We have heard from some clients that they were turned away on some occasions and redirected to websites.  We expect that occurred because the phone systems were overloaded, so try again in a week if that happens.

Why can't I find credit freeze information on the credit bureau websites?

You, the consumer, are not the ultimate customers of the credit bureaus - mortgage banks, credit card companies, auto lenders, landlords, and employer are.  If you freeze your credit, that's one less data point that can be analyzed, packaged and sold.  The credit bureaus have no incentive to help you freeze your credit report.

Should I get credit monitoring anyway?

If you decide you need to keep your reports open, you can either pay for this service or perform the monitor on your own.  We don't recommend using the credit bureaus' monitoring services - that's not their business. Instead, use IdentityGuardLifeLock or MyFico.  Each company has different options, prices points and benefits, so spend some time figuring out which options are best for you.

Alternatively, get in the habit of setting alerts in your banking and credit card websites for large (e.g. over $1000) transactions, and review your credit report periodically for accounts you didn't open.

Should I be looking at my credit report on an ongoing basis?

We suggest yes, at least once/year and more often if you're in the market for credit.  CreditKarma.com will give you Transunion and Equifax reports for free (they get paid by advertising credit cards.)  MyFico.com tracks all three bureaus, and includes alerts and traffic monitoring as well, starting at $19.99/month.  Both services offer tools for figuring out how to raise your credit score.

Could a credit freeze affect other systems I use, for example, Social Security?

Unfortunately, yes.  Systems like SocialSecurity/MyAccount  query the credit bureaus to create challenge questions (e.g. "with which of these five banks did you have a mortgage in 2009?")  If you don't create these accounts BEFORE you put on the credit freeze, you may be locked out.  For Social Security, for example, you would have to go a SS branch in person and fill out paperwork after showing proper ID.

Many e-Signature services do the same kind of verification through the credit bureas, so be prepared for frustration in other elements of your financial life.